The book of Eli: “I just want to win”

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The book of Eli: “I just want to win”

Eli Cain drives to the basket against Villanova. 
(Konrad Markowski / The DePaulia)

Eli Cain drives to the basket against Villanova. (Konrad Markowski / The DePaulia)

Eli Cain drives to the basket against Villanova. (Konrad Markowski / The DePaulia)

Eli Cain drives to the basket against Villanova. (Konrad Markowski / The DePaulia)

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Death, taxes, and wing Eli Cain in the DePaul Blue Demon’s starting lineup.

In three years as a Blue Demon, Cain has started 91 of the 94 games he’s played in, serving as the constant as other players have arrived and left the program. But all good things must come to an end, as Cain prepares for his final year repping the Blue Demon red and blue in Lincoln Park.

This past week, Cain took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to The DePaulia about the upcoming season, his gold medal winning effort at the FISU America Games in Brazil in July, and reflected on his career as a Blue Demon as he prepares to make his last season his best one.

Cain is a newly minted gold medalist. At the FISU America Games in Sau Paulo, Brazil at the end of July, he helped his squad go undefeated across four games in a gold medal-winning effort. Team USA consisted of a hodge-podge of Division I talent from around the country. The 10-man squad had representation from Stephen F. Austin, Charleston Southern, Valparaiso, Northern Kentucky, Texas A&M, Ball State, Rider, Wright State, and of course DePaul.

Was meshing this diverse group of talent into a cohesive on-court unit a difficult process?

“It was weird, because usually things like that take some time [developing on-court chemistry with new teammates]. But it seemed like that first day at training camp in Ohio we all just were on the same page. It was kind of awesome to see because things like that with guys from different schools where all of us are usually the main guys at our schools it can be egos and things like that, but it was a pretty smooth transition building that chemistry and camaraderie between each other.”

Since NBA star Paul George suffered a compound fracture in his right leg during a Team USA scrimmage ahead of the 2014 FIBA World Championships, debates have escalated over the benefits of extra competition during the offseason compared to just staying at home with your team and training.

Did DePaul’s coaching staff express any anxieties about Cain going off to Brazil to compete in the FISU America  Games?

“There wasn’t any pushback for me. We have a great coaching staff, I’m sure with other teams around the country there is some pushback. But, there wasn’t any here at all. The coaches we have here really look out for one another and really look out for the players as a whole. I’ve been around places where it isn’t like that and it’s kind of rare where coaches really care about their kids like our coaches do.”

For the first time ever, Cain wore the letters U, S, and A in that order across his chest. What did winning a gold medal for his country mean to him? 

“It was really special for me personally. I set goals and things like that, but that was never really a goal I had [winning a gold medal for Team USA] because I never thought the opportunity would be possible for me. When the opportunity came, I immediately jumped on it and that’s something that I can say I did for the rest of my life that most other people can’t really say they did.”

“I think I played pretty well. I was back to being off the ball a little bit more. I still played a little bit of point guard out there but I think it was just a chance to play with different guys and to play against other people. Throughout the summer, we have been playing against each other in open gyms here and there and just being able to play against different people and with different people and being coached by different people. Just playing against different countries and seeing how they play basketball in their respective country.”

Cain and Team USA knocked off Mexico (98-78), Chile (92-79), Brazil (79-65), and Argentina (78-69) en route to the gold. Part of the challenge, and the fun, was adapting to the varying styles of basketball that each country played. 

“Each team we played had their own unique style and it was just fun to have to adapt to how they play and learn their ins and outs on the fly.We played Argentina in the championship and they were tough and really physical, but not really that big. It was like the modern NBA with a lot of like-size guys switching screens and different things like that. Then with Brazil, they had two back-to-the-basket guys who were trying to slow the game down. It was just different with every team bringing their own thing. Us obviously being USA we were just being the more athletic team, picking up guys at 94 feet on defense, and things like that. We did a lot more running, using our athleticism and our speed against a lot of other teams.”

“It was a really good experience, obviously it was different than the things I am used to. Just seeing a different culture and players and coaches and different teams and how they interact with each other. We were all staying in the same hotels, so I saw them in the morning at breakfast, during matches, seeing them go into their hotel rooms, and being able to interact with them it was a really different experience for me and my teammates.”

At the beginning of August, a YouTube video surfaced of new Chicago Bull Jabari Parker mixing it up in an open gym scrimmage at McGrath-Phillips Arena in Lincoln Park with current members of the DePaul Blue Demon squad. Former Blue Demons Tre’Darius McCallum and Billy Garrett Jr. also played along with former Illinois and Oakland guard Kendrick Nunn

“Our coach Tim Anderson is like Jabari’s big brother so as soon as Tim got here he pulled me aside and told me how he was going to have me training with those guys and just talking with those guys and being around them. [They are] people who we all want to be in their position someday and they’re Chicago guys so he came out for an open gym. It was really good competition and it was fun to compete against guys like that because someday that’s where I want to be.”

Last season, the Blue Demons lost seven games by five points or less, causing many within the program to insist that they were on the precipice of turning things around. 

“I’d like to think next year we would be on the winning side of at least half of those games,” DePaul Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto told Chicago Tribune writer Shannon Ryan last season. “There would be seven or eight more wins. I feel like we would make a good step forward if we turn some of those (close losses) into wins.”

Is that still the feeling and how will the Blue Demons turn those close losses into close wins next season? 

“We’re at a place where we just need to get it done. Coach [Dave Leitao] uses this phrase lovable losers, we’ve been in a bunch of games, we’ve shown what we can do but now we’re at a point where it’s either put up or shut up where we just need to get it done. There’s no second place. I think we have the guys this year to make that happen. We have some new guys, some transfers coming in, and some young guys. I think one thing about this year is we have more depth than usual, we can play eight to 10 guys who can really play basketball and help us win basketball games. That’s big for us going forward.”

Eight games in last year, starting point guard Devin Gage ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right foot costing him the remainder of his season. Cain stepped in as emergency point guard averaging 11.3 points per game on 33.3 percent from the field, 3.2 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in 23 games where he captained the offense. 

Although he said he expects to return to more of an off the ball role this season, his time playing point guard last year made him a better basketball player. 

“I think I learned a lot. I learned a lot mentally about myself and about the game of basketball. Some people said I took a downfall looking at my stats, but I think that people who really understand basketball or know how the game works can tell that that was a better fit for my game. Devin was a huge part of what we do and when he went down it hurt us a lot. I’m not as special at point guard as he is, but now he’s back so we’re past it and we’re looking forward to it [the new season].”

Last season, the Blue Demons were a Big East-worst 31 percent from behind the 3-point line, which also clogged up driving lanes and led to an inefficient offense (183rd in the country last season in adjusted offensive efficiency). Departed guard Brandon Cyrus led the team at 34.6 percent behind the arc and in an era where teams strive for shooting at every position the Blue Demons rarely spaced the floor successfully due to the shooting prowess of one of their big men.

Will incoming freshman John Diener, transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands, and a reinvigorated Max Strus and  Cain (are they better shooters than their 3-point percentages indicated last season?) help the Blue Demons flip the script and turn a weakness into a definitive strength?

“I think that will definitely be one of our strengths this year (3-point shooting). I think having Devin back will create a lot of open shots for a lot of us. That’s the first thing. Secondly, we have more guys who can put the ball in the basket from the 3-point range. Thirdly, I know all of us put a lot of work in the offseason to increase our 3-point percentage and become more consistent even guys you didn’t name like Paul [Reed], Devin, Femi [Olujobi], and George [Maslennikov]. So we have a lot of guys top to bottom who can stretch the floor and make a lot of shots from behind the arc.”

Cain has been with the program the longest of all of his teammates. He’s been an integral part of laying down a culture that he hopes will eventually become conducive to winning.

“I take a lot of pride in that. The results haven’t been what we want, but me and coach Leitao always tell each other we’re going through all of this for a reason. We’ve been telling each other that since my freshman year, because someday it’s going to turn and in my opinion it’s going to be this year. But whether it’s this year or not, I know it’s going to happen for sure. But, that’s definitely something I take pride in. Me and coach Leitao are probably the only two guys in the program who’ve been here day one since coach got here. I think we both take pride in understanding that we went through the bad times to get to the good times.”

Fresh off a sophomore campaign where he led the Blue Demons in scoring, Cain figured he’d be the go-to guy in his first year as an upperclassman last season. But then the Strus got loose. Strus led the team in scoring while also garnering the most field goal attempts per game on the team as well. Many of his points were assisted by Cain who had to commit to the duties of a point guard and become more pass first than score first.

Has sharing the spotlight and developing chemistry with Strus been a difficult process for Cain? 

“I think it’s been very easy. The guy who Max is, he makes it easy. I think I play a part in it too. Obviously, people would think or want to say that it’s hard for us to share, but we both know we make it very easy for each other. And I don’t think it’s just us two, people can say we’re the two main players or whatever, but I think it’s the whole team. I’ve never been that person who looks for that stardom or whatever you want to call it, but I think we both put ourselves in situations where you can call us the two main players. I don’t think it’s been a hard process at all. We both want the same goal. We both talk to each other and know each other inside and out. People can say what they want, but we know what’s really going on.”

By now, everybody knows all of this.

No winning record since the 2006-2007 season. No NCAA tournament appearances since the 2003-2004 season. Three straight seasons finishing last or second to last in the Big East.

But tomorrow is a new day, and November begins a new season. What are Cain’s expectations for his final season in a Blue Demon uniform? 

“I just want to win. I feel like I’ve proven I can do a lot of things. But in my opinion, I haven’t proved myself enough because I haven’t won as I should have or as I want to. Both personally and as a team, if I win I’m going to get all the personal goals I desire.