Three is Company


Jalen Coleman-Lands has shot the ball 25.9 percent from deep this season. Richard Bodee I The DePaulia

Basketball has changed.

Gone are the days where mountainous big men laboriously dominated the game from the post. Shooting at all positions from everywhere on the floor is basketball’s new gold standard.

Last season, the DePaul Blue Demon men’s basketball team didn’t buy into this trend finishing 333rd and 297th in the country in 3-point field goal percentage and opponent 3-point field goal percentage respectively.

Five games into this season and Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao’s bunch has seen incremental improvements in both categories with a lot of work left to do.

3-Point Shooting

Prior to the season, there was a sense that DePaul would shoot the ball much better from beyond the 3-point line than they had a season ago.

It made sense. Transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands and his 40.2 percent 3-point percentage from his two seasons at Illinois was now eligible to play for the Blue Demons. Visually, seniors Max Strus and Eli Cain seemed like better shooters than their 33.3 and 31.3 percent 3-point percentages respectively from last season suggested. Big men Paul Reed and Femi Olujobi had been working on their shots during the offseason, ideally giving the Blue Demons the stretch big man they lacked last season. All these factors suggested major improvements in this category.

“We’ve added more shooters and we’ve put much more emphasis on it, so the combination I hope will make us really better than what we were last season,” Leitao said at the Chicago college basketball tip-off luncheon in October.”

Strus, who sometimes struggled last season with the combination of defenses being able to focus their game plans on stopping him and a packed paint area as a result of the Blue Demons lack of spacing, also sensed that the Blue Demons would shoot the ball better this season than they had the season before.

“A lot of guys last year on our team struggled with shooting the ball so now we have Jalen [Coleman-Lands] who can stretch the floor, Eli can stretch the floor out shooting the ball so it’ll open up driving lanes and have the defense collapse,” Strus said. “We can kick it out and give an easier shot for step-in threes. You will see that percentage go up this year.”

But so far it hasn’t worked out. The Blue Demons have shot the ball 30.7 percent from deep this season (278th in the nation; worse than last season) on 23 attempts per game (three higher than last year, so that’s a silver lining).

Strus, Coleman-Lands, and Devin Gage have shot the ball 32.6, 25.9, and 16.7 percent respectively from deep this season. Cain has picked up the slack, shooting 42.3 percent on 5.2 attempts per game. Disappointingly, the big men have provided little in the form of floor spacing. Olujobi hit his first 3-point field goal Wednesday night against Cleveland State, but has only attempted two all season. Reed is 0-for-4 from downtown on the season. Butz does a lot of things well for this Blue Demon team, but 3-point shooting isn’t a weapon in his arsenal right now (hasn’t attempted one this season).

Can the Blue Demons turn their 3-point shooting around as the season progresses?

On the optimistic side, it’s only five games into the season and numbers tend to even out as a season progresses. Strus, Gage, and Cain all can break down defenses with their driving abilities and then find avenues to get the ball to open 3-point shooters like in the play below.

Optimistically, the Blue Demons have just been missing good looks and once they start hitting them like they are supposed to those numbers will naturally rise. Per 40 minutes, Gage and Cain have posted career highs in assists as the ball movement has looked good this season and the open shots have been there.

“I think having Devin [Gage] back will create a lot of open shots for a lot of us.” Cain said before the season. “That’s the first thing. Secondly, I think we have more guys that can put the ball in the basket from the 3-point range. I know all of us put a lot of work in this offseason to increase our 3-point percentages and become more consistent.”

Pessimistically, because the Blue Demons are only seven deep in the rotation right now they really don’t have a high volume of players who can help buoy that 3-point percentage. None of the big men have been consistent threats from deep in their careers. Gage’s strength isn’t his shooting (career high for a single season is 23.8 percent from 3-point land). Therefore, the Blue Demons are counting on Strus, Cain, and Coleman-Lands to collectively have great outside shooting seasons to drag up the overall 3-point shooting percentage of the entire team. That’s a tall task to assign to three players.

3-Point Defense

Last season, defending the 3-point line was a major weakness for Leitao’s crew.

The Blue Demons finished the season surrendering a 37.1 percent 3-point shooting percentage to opponents which checked in at No. 297 in the country. Opponents nailed double digit 3-point field goals 15 times on the Blue Demons last season, reaching a high-water mark when Oregon and Villanova hit 15 triples against DePaul on Nov. 24 and Dec. 27 respectively.

Not only were opponents hitting 3-point field goals at a high percentage, but they were also shooting them at a fairly high volume as well. Blue Demon opponents cast up 770 triples last season, which was the 89th-highest volume in the nation.

Through three games of this new season, the Blue Demons appeared like they had a better handle on preventing opponents from running them out of the gym from beyond the arc. Against Bethune-Cookman, Morgan State, and Penn State the Blue Demons gave up six, six, and 10 made 3-point field goals respectively and the three teams shot a collective 26.2 percent from deep.

But then the second half of the Notre Dame game happened. In eerily similar fashion to what transpired between the two teams at Wintrust Arena last season, the Fighting Irish caught fire from beyond the 3-point line in the second half nailing 7-of-13 (54.8 percent) en route to blowing out DePaul 95-70 after a competitive first half. After the Cleveland State Vikings hit 13 triples against the Blue Demons on Wednesday evening, Leitao offered up an explanation on what his team can do better in this department.

Sophomore forward Paul Reed closes out on a shot by freshman forward Nate Laszewski during DePaul’s 95-70 loss to Notre Dame. Richard Bodee | The DePaulia

“When a guy is closing out to a 3-point shooter he might be late for a reason,” Leitao said. “He might be bumping a roller, he might be too long on the help line. He might be a lot of different things. If we go back to the end of the Penn State game, there were five seconds and they drew up a play and [Penn State guard Myles] Dread ran to the weak-side corner he caught the ball ready to shoot and Max went to the midline and chased him off the shot. It was athletic and had some really great intentions and they ended up having to dribble it. That same kind of intensity has to happen to close out shooters. We clearly haven’t got that message because the season started off with us not having to do it the first couple games, first two at least. So we have to get into a better groove of closing out these shooters.”

In a separate postgame presser, Cain offered his take.

“I think it’s just getting back to the drawing board,” Cain said. “We know how to guard against the three, we know how to guard different offenses. Tonight, we just let some guys get open and they were a good 3-point shooting team and made some shots.”

Compared to last year, DePaul has improved in this category although the 33.8 percent opponents have shot on triples this season (208th in the country) probably still isn’t where Leitao wants that number to be at.

As Leitao suggested, this could be more an effort than a personnel problem. Reed swatted away several 3-point attempts on closeouts against Morgan State and his length altered or deterred several other shots. Gage, Strus, Cain, and Butz are all athletic enough to close out out quickly and effectively on 3-point shooters as well.

If simply making a better effort to fight through traffic to attack shooters on closeouts isn’t the answer, a Twitter user offered up another possible solution.

It’s early in the season, so it’s problematic to make sweeping generalizations about how good the Blue Demons are in each category. So far, they have improved incrementally in both categories but with more than three months of season left to play we may have a different conversation about all of this once March rolls around.