Getting things started


DePaul head coach Dave Leitao enters his fourth season in his second stint with the program looking to provide DePaul’s first winning season since the 2006-07 season. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Starting lineups are in a constant flux, but what happens in an exhibition game can at least provide a barometer for what’s to come.

In a competitive 72-65 win against the Rockhurst University Hawks Thursday night at Wintrust Arena, program mainstays Max Stus, Eli Cain, and Devin Gage started. Upperclassmen newcomers Jalen Coleman-Lands and Femi Olujobi also started, as Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao chose to go small (the 6-foot-6-inch Strus was at the four) and experienced (everybody mentioned has played at least two years of college basketball) with his starting lineup.

The group is still developing chemistry on the fly. Strus and Cain played a significant amount of minutes together last season, but Gage just played eight games after sustaining a season-ending Achilles injury, stunting the process of syncing all three together. Coleman-Lands and Olujobi are new, so developing on-court chemistry in actual games could be a process.

Which is fine because Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao is more concerned with how his lineups look at the end of the game than at the start of them.

“I almost wish America or the basketball world didn’t focus on starting lineups,” Leitao said. “Isn’t it more important the five guys who finish than the five guys who start? I don’t quite get it with the fascination most people have with one’s ability to start. I want our guys to look at it this way. If Femi starts one day and Jaylen Butz doesn’t, then Jaylen is his greatest support because he’s going to be in the game two minutes after the game starts and vice versa.”

For the record, Leitao navigated the last minutes of the game with Cain, Reed, Olujobi, Coleman-Lands, and Gage as his squad.

Tonight, young sophomore big men Reed and Butz were the first guys off the bench for the Blue Demons. Reed’s 32:51 of playing time was the second most on the team behind Cain. Butz was the only other reserve besides Reed to garner more than six minutes of playing time, as guys like John Diener, Flynn Cameron, and Lyrik Shreiner didn’t affect the game much in their limited playing time.

Last season, Leitao garnered criticism for supposedly favoring older, more experienced players over talented freshmen particularly in the case of since-departed point guard Justin Roberts. But age and experience isn’t a factor he considers heavily when penning in rotations.

“Not a lot,” Leitao said when asked how much stock he puts into years in the program, age, or years of collegiate basketball experience when divvying up playing time. “I don’t have to in this group because there’s only two guys who have earned and played significant minutes last year.”

If there was any caveat to the Blue Demons surprisingly competitive game against Rockhurst Thursday night, it was that senior forward Max Strus didn’t play much.

Strus, with his newly flowing hair and white bandana, played nine minutes all of which came in the first half. The soreness bug had bitten him and the Blue Demons weren’t taking chances.

“It was a little bit of a [nagging] injury, our medical team and our coaches just kind of shut him down so we could get prepared for next week to make sure his body is ready,” Leitao said. “We thought this was in his best interests and in our best interests, so yesterday was the first time he got back onto the court. He’s 23, in his fifth year of college so he can’t run around and jump as much as others.”

Strus attempted two shots and finished with three points. When the games start to matter, he’ll likely be out there at the beginning and at the end. But everything else is up in the air.

“We have an ability to play different lineups game-by-game or within a game and different starting lineups, different ending lineups, ability to go big, and go small, and do a lot of different things,” Leitao said.