Let’s get this thing started: Blue Demons battle Bethune-Cookman

For the first time in 245 days, the DePaul Blue Demon men’s basketball team will be playing a game that matters.

Bethune-Cookman University is the opponent for the Blue Demon’s 2018-2019 season opener and the game goes down at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Wintrust Arena. The Wildcats, who finished 18-14 overall and 12-4 in conference play last season, are a Division I program from Daytona Beach, Fla. that compete in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The culture change within the Bethune-Cookman basketball program has been swift. Last season, first-year head coach Ryan Ridder coaxed the Wildcats to their first winning season since 2011-2012. His 2017-2018 team posted school records (since they became a Division I program in 1979) in points, total free throws, free-throw attempts, total rebounding, and total assists. They were picked as the preseason favorites in the MEAC.

The Wildcats return four of their five leading scorers from a season ago, their two leading rebounders, and two guys who averaged more than four assists per game. Although not particularly efficient from a shooting percentage standpoint, Bethune-Cookman flat out put up points last season. Their 81.9 point per game average was 25th highest in the country and they eclipsed 90 points on seven occasions last season including a 121-point outburst against Savannah State in late February (didn’t include overtime).

Led by now seniors Shawntrez Davis and Soufiyane Diakite, the Wildcats are also tenacious on the boards, finishing 24th and 59th in the country in offensive and defensive rebounds per game respectively last season. Davis and Diakite are 6-foot-9-inches and 6-foot-6-inches respectively, so they aren’t going to overpower the Blue Demons frontcourt from a physical standpoint. Positioning and veteran know how is how Davis and Diakite will win the day on the boards. Watching how the Blue Demon sophomore brigade of Jaylen Butz and Paul Reed compete with the wily veterans in Davis and Diakite on the boards could be a key matchup in this game.

After a lackadaisical effort in an exhibition game last week against Division II Rockhurst University, head coach Dave Leitao’s crew will look to come out with more of an edge against Bethune-Cookman. In the exhibition game, star Blue Demon senior Max Strus played just nine minutes after experiencing an undisclosed nagging injury in practices leading up to the game. Assuming he’s healthy and playing normal minutes, the second team preseason All-Big East selection who averaged 16.8 points per game in his first season with DePaul should provide the Blue Demons with a shot in the arm offensively.

After Leitao noted to reporters in preseason that Reed may be his best post player, the sophomore big man backed up that high praise from his coach with a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double against Rockhurst. Senior Eli Cain, who has been with the program longer than anybody else on the team, will remain an important part of the offense for the Blue Demons. After missing all but eight games last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, point guard Devin Gage showed the same fearlessness attacking the basket against Rockhurst that defined his game prior to the injury.

One thing to look for Wednesday night is how deep the Blue Demons rotation goes. In the preseason, Leitao lauded depth as a potential strength of his team. In the exhibition game against Rockhurst, only six guys played double-digit minutes (seven Blue Demons would have reached double-figure minutes if Strus was healthy) as expected rotational pieces like transfer Lyrik Shreiner and freshmen John Diener and Flynn Cameron were ineffective in limited playing time.

Regardless, what happens in one exhibition game won’t define how the season goes as the Blue Demons quest for their first winning season since 2006-2007 finally begins Wednesday night.