Close losses define another frustrating season


The Blue Demons (Pictured: Brandon Cyrus) looked deflated after coming up just shy of an upset in DePaul's final regular season game. before the Big East. (Jim Young | AP News)

If you didn’t watch a second of DePaul Blue Demon men’s basketball up until a 72-69 defeat against Marquette in the first round of the Big East tournament Wednesday that game provided you with everything you need to know about these Blue Demons.

So close all season. Another missed game-winning attempt, this time a 3-point field goal from guard Max Strus, whose shot was centimeters short from cresting the side iron of the rim and dropping through the net.

From the highest highs (70-62 win over Marquette on Feb. 24 that marked the first conference win at Wintrust Arena) to the lowest lows (71-64 loss to the Providence Friars on Jan. 12 that featured a 22-0 run by the Friars), it was a roller coaster of emotions for DePaul this season.

A roster with seven new faces, one that had to improvise without their starting point guard Devin Gage for most of the season, was predictably as tumultuous as the game to game attendance at newly built Wintrust Arena.

“There’s a lot of reasons to be very, very proud and to be very, very optimistic about not only what we just completed as a season but as the five seniors move on, what lies ahead,” head coach Dave Leitao said after DePaul’s loss to Marquette in the Big East tournament. “We build character. We build more toughness. We build sustainability. And there will come a day very, very soon we’ll get some payback on all the games that we had that were just like today.”

With the book on this season written, what should we watch out for between now and the beginning of the 2018-2019 season?

Development Key:

Justin Roberts’ speed? You can’t teach that. Paul Reed’s wingspan and athleticism? Still can’t teach that. Flynn Cameron’s innate playmaking abilities? He probably didn’t learn that from a coach out in Australia or New Zealand.

But, does Leitao have a track record of successfully developing talent?

The most obvious case study is Eli Cain, who arrived in Lincoln Park the same year that Leitao did the second time around. Cain’s true shooting percentage and player efficiency rating have sharply regressed between last season and this one, as did his per 40 minute scoring and rebounding numbers. But, he was thrust unexpectedly into the point guard role and averaged 4.6 assists per game which was the seventh best mark in the Big East, so perhaps all the criticism isn’t fair.

Either way, using one player to make a sweeping conclusion is irresponsible and lazy.

During Leitao’s first stop in Lincoln Park, Quemont Greer grew from DePaul’s third or fourth option during his first season under Leitao, to the leading scorer on the Blue Demons (18.3 points per game on 45.7 percent from the field) in his last season under Leitao. He also became better at rebounding each year. Drake Diener’s points per 40 minutes and 3-point shooting percentage improved every season under Leitao. LeVar Seals went from reserve early in his Blue Demon career to starting 31 games his senior season under Leitao.

A reasonable argument can be made either way. But, whether he still has that touch in the development department is a critical factor in whether DePaul can improve next season.

Talking Shooting:

In an era of basketball where the best teams sport dangerous shooters at all five positions, the 2017-2018 iteration of the Blue Demons lagged decades behind.

DePaul settled in at 334th in the nation in team 3-point field goal percentage (31 percent), with Brandon Cyrus leading the way at 35.3 percent from that range. Their big men were ineffective from deep, with Marin Maric spearheading the effort at a 32.1 percent clip, but on only one attempt per game. Tre’Darius McCallum and Paul Reed shot 28.6 percent and 21.4 percent respectively, from behind the 3-point line, which did little to space the floor and open up driving lanes for the guards.

Not only was DePaul inaccurate from deep, but they shied away from attempting these shots. They finished the season with 607 3-point attempts which was the 262nd most in the country.

The insertion of transfer shooting guard Jalen Coleman-Lands will help. In two seasons in Fighting Illini country, he was a 40.2 percent 3-point shooter on a high volume of attempts. Incoming freshman John Diener is a good shooter too, although it’s anybody’s guess how much he will play.

Can former top 50 high school recruit Austin Grandstaff put two disastrous seasons in college behind him, and regain the shooting stroke that made him special as a prep? Can Reed fine tune his shooting stroke enough to become a stretch big, something that he diligently works on at practice and hours before tipoff?

“I’m trying to get more comfortable with my shot form as a whole,” Reed said. “I want my shot form to be more fluent. I want it to be the same every time I shoot. [So], it feels the same when I shoot, because that’s what I’ve been struggling with.”

It’s a lot of what ifs, but there’s reason to believe that DePaul can dramatically improve their shooting next season and usher themselves into the modern age of basketball.

Fire JLP?

If we’re taking DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto at her word, it’s difficult to argue that her recent management of the men’s basketball program has been anything but a failure.

“We don’t see this as a rebuilding project, but an opportunity to take the next step in the process,” Lenti Ponsetto said in the introductory press conference for then new head coach Leitao three years ago. “Our expectation is to win now. We have talent here that needs to be re-engineered.”

But that promise has rung hollow, as seasons of nine, nine, and 11 wins respectively and a permanent residence at or near the bottom of the Big East standings followed. An impatient fan base on the brink of hysteria flood writers’ mentions on Twitter with #fireJLP. Beautiful Wintrust Arena is often a sea of unoccupied blue seats.

A 1-7 record in games decided by five points or fewer, coupled with a roster oozing with budding potential and more shooting on the horizon suggests that better days could be ahead for DePaul. But after so many years of losing, are fans willing to give the benefit of the doubt? Is this optimism from the athletic department just talking points (some would call them excuses) rehashed after another losing season?

“I’ve said to everybody that we are scary close to being what everybody wants us to be,” Leitao said. “It requires me, sometimes the most impatient person in this world, to practice more patience. This process, it had to go through something like this season [a losing season], to experience what is out in front of us [winning].