Takeaways early in Blue Demons basketball season

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Takeaways early in Blue Demons basketball season

The DePaul Blue Demon men's basketball team huddles before a game. [Richard Bodee-The DePaulia]

The DePaul Blue Demon men's basketball team huddles before a game. [Richard Bodee-The DePaulia]

The DePaul Blue Demon men's basketball team huddles before a game. [Richard Bodee-The DePaulia]

The DePaul Blue Demon men's basketball team huddles before a game. [Richard Bodee-The DePaulia]

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Breathe Blue Demon fans.

The suspense of a 72-70 overtime victory against Penn State Thursday night has receded and the DePaul Blue Demon men’s basketball team is 3-0 for the first time since the 2008-2009 season.

Three games into the 2018-2019 season and the Blue Demons have shattered the expectations of many. Although the season is still young, the early season has taught us a lot about this team.

Rise of Reed

Unequivocally, Paul Reed is a star. You just may have to peek past his per game numbers to realize it.

Per 40 minutes, Reed is second on the Blue Demons in scoring (17.9 points) and rebounding (14.3 rebounds) and first in blocks (2.1 blocks) among players who have played at least 50 total minutes this season. He’s tied for the team lead with Max Strus with a 25.0 player efficiency rating and leads the team with a 7.0 box plus-minus. Most importantly, the eye test matches the stats. He attacks on the boards and finishes with authority around the rim.

He’s  also patient in the post, testing the concentration of opponents with long series of post moves that usually end with an easy bucket. Defensively, he blocks shots and is athletic enough to switch onto guards on the perimeter. The one element of his game that hasn’t blossomed yet is his shooting. He’s missed all three of his 3-point field goal attempts this season despite diligently practicing these shots before each game.

“My 3-point shot is coming along,” Reed said. “During game situations when I shoot I need to slow my shot down. I shoot too quick and I release it too quick instead of just taking my time and shooting. My next step is slowing it down and being more patient.”

Despite Reed’s production this season, he’s averaged 18.7 minutes per game which is the lowest out of the seven guys who have played significant minutes this season for the Blue Demons. Foul trouble limited him to 13 minutes against Penn State, but in the Blue Demons first two games he played 20 and 23 minutes respectively despite only picking up one foul in both games.

Dig a Little Deeper

Prior to the season, DePaul Blue Demon’s head coach Dave Leitao identified depth as a potential strength of his team.

“The challenge that I have is I’ll have at least eight guys who can legitimately start and how do I figure that out,” Leitao said. “It can be the greatest positive in the world if they accept it like that. Sometimes their role will be different one week to the next which can be kind of a challenge if you don’t have the [right] mindset.”

But so far that depth hasn’t materialized. Through three games, seven guys have played 92 percent of the Blue Demons total minutes, accounted for 94.6 percent of the points, 92.3 percent of the rebounds, and 95.9 percent of the assists. One to seven, the Blue Demons have been solid but after that the production has dropped off dramatically.

Redshirt freshman Flynn Cameron has looked uncomfortable in his limited time running the offense this season (22 total minutes and in many of those minutes Eli Cain took care of the ball-handling duties). Transfer Lyrik Shreiner scored four points, brought down two rebounds, and dished out two assists in garbage time against Morgan State, but didn’t see the floor in DePaul’s victory against Penn State on Thursday evening.

Freshman big men Mick Sullivan and George Maslennikov have played 11 and four minutes respectively this season. Sharpshooting freshman John Diener hasn’t played yet with a redshirt obviously on the table as an option.

Winning without depth isn’t impossible, but it makes it more difficult. Villanova rolled through the NCAA last season with eight guys doing most of the work. In 2014-2015 en route to its NCAA Championship appearance, the Wisconsin Badgers rotation had seven productive players. Of course, those two teams had absolutely top-end talent mitigating the need for depth. If DePaul continues to roll with a seven-man rotation, staying healthy and keeping all seven guys productive simultaneously becomes even more important for them. The margin of error is slim.

Outside of their top seven players, who can step up and add some productive minutes and some much-needed depth for this Blue Demon team? Cameron and Shreiner feel like the most likely options.

Getting Confident

The Blue Demons win against the Penn State Nittany Lions Thursday night always felt more important than what it actually is when put in the proper context.

It’s Nov. 15. It’s the third game of the season. If this is the signature win or highlight of the season for the Blue Demons when March rolls around, it’ll probably mean another unsuccessful season for DePaul.

But, there’s something intangible the Blue Demons gained from Thursday night that they haven’t had for a long time and that will serve them well for the rest of the season. Confidence. 

“We held on just enough to win a close ball game which I think is really, really important for the psyche of our guys, the psyche of our locker room, and the psyche of our program,” Leitao said. “We need to win games and prove ourselves and then look at it from a perspective of growth and getting better.”

It’s Cliché but….

This team doesn’t give up.

Against Penn State, there were two instances where they could have folded. To start the game, the Nittany Lions jumped out to an 11-0 lead by forcing the Blue Demons into six early turnovers. After the under-16 timeout, Leitao checked in Femi Olujobi and Reed who led the Blue Demons on a quick 8-3 run (all eight points came from those two) and by the 10:15 mark in the first half, the game was knotted at 19.

Later with the Blue Demons up 10 points with 3:41 left in the game, the Nittany Lions executed a suffocating full-court press with their two best defenders Josh Reaves and Jamari Wheeler and quickly erased that deficit to force the game into overtime. With all the momentum on Penn State’s side, the Blue Demons grinded out a 72-70 win by surrendering just two points in the overtime period.

“That’s the thing about this team this year, when adversity strikes we’re all going to stick together and get through it,” Strus said after the game against Penn State. “I’m so proud of our guys for tonight. It wasn’t the way we wanted to win, but we won and that’s all that matters.”

It feels like this was a game that another DePaul team in a different year would have lost. But not this year.