Blue Demon star Max Strus punctuated one of DePaul’s better weeks of the season with his second Big East Player of the Week honor of the season.
But in a week where the Blue Demons went 2-0 with wins against the Chicago State Cougars on Wednesday and the University of Illinois at Chicago Flames on Friday we learned a lot more about DePaul than just the fact that Strus is still good at basketball.
Taking Care of Business:
There really aren’t style points in college basketball so long as the end result of any given game is a check in the win column.
But some wins feel better than others do.
The subdued ambience in the postgame press conference after DePaul squeaked past Division II Rockhurst in its only exhibition game of the season back at the beginning of November speaks to that. Uncomfortably competitive home games against Cleveland State (KenPom.com No. 271) and Florida A&M (KenPom No. 337) also left the feeling that DePaul should have put away those teams more handily than they did.
Last week, the Blue Demons weren’t messing around, handling Chicago State (KenPom No. 347) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (KenPom No. 177) 104-70 and 90-70 respectively.
“If we envision at the start of the season what our team is supposed to look like it’s based on balance,” Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao said after his team beat Chicago State. “We have some good offensive players that have to grow not only into themselves but into each other and create some offensive chemistry. Then we have to do the same thing and play as one defensively. I think we’ve done that to a certain degree, but not at the level of consistency that we can feel good about day-to-day, game-to-game. I thought today was an opportunity to do that and we did that.”
Against Chicago State, it took just under 12 minutes of game time for the Blue Demons to build a double-digit lead as the Cougars would never again pull closer than 10 points after the 8:12 mark in the first half en route to a commanding 34-point DePaul victory. Two days later against UIC, DePaul wasted even less time building their lead. An 11-2 advantage over the first three minutes of the game built all the cushion the Blue Demons needed as they rolled to a 20-point victory against a UIC team that was probably better than their 4-6 record going into the game indicated.
According to KenPom.com, the DePaul Blue Demons have played the ninth-easiest schedule out of 353 Division I squads.
The Blue Demons best win of the season, a 72-70 overtime thriller against Penn State on Nov. 15, continues to look good as the Nittany Lions sit at No. 43 in the country according to KenPom. Penn State is 5-5, but doesn’t have any egregious losses on the season and beat a ranked Virginia Tech team at the end of November.
Per KenPom, Penn State has been the toughest opponent the Blue Demons have squared off against this season. Losses against Notre Dame and Northwestern (No. 47 and No. 51 in KenPom respectively) were missed opportunities for the Blue Demons to string together additional quality wins early in the season.
Outside of Penn State, the Blue Demons best win is against No. 177 ranked UIC. Four of the Blue Demons seven wins came against teams ranked 300th or higher in KenPom. Wednesday night’s opponent Incarnate Word is No. 343.
The Blue Demons date against No. 96 Boston College on Saturday looms large as we’ll get one more quality indicator of how good this team is ahead of the Big East opener on Dec. 29.
Essentially, the Blue Demons have had three real tests so far during the nonconference portion of their schedule and have failed two of them.
Speeding Things Up
Last week, the Blue Demons produced two of their three largest offensive outputs of the season by points scored.
In those two games, DePaul played at their fastest pace of the season (estimation of the number of possessions a team garners per 40 minutes per SportsReference.com). After the UIC game, Leitao credited his point guard for speeding the Blue Demons up.
“Credit Devin because he did a really good job of putting the ball on the defense when we got defensive stops,” Leitao said. “He got an outlet, he pushed the basketball, he was very aggressive. He could pull-up sometimes. He’s becoming a trustworthy mid-range jump shooter. He’s getting to the rim and starting to distribute more and more. Tip of the hat to what he did not only for creating early and easier opportunities offensively but just managing the game the way he did.”
Between Devin Gage, Strus, Paul Reed, and Eli Cain the Blue Demons aren’t hurting for athletic players on their roster this season. They hoped it would manifest into a quicker pace of play in the games.
“We’re trying to push the ball up the floor fast, get a quick shot, and if we can’t we’re going to run some offense,” Strus said. “Just try to get the best shot available.”
So far, there have been incremental improvements in this category compared to a season ago. The Blue Demons have averaged 70.7 possessions per 40 minutes this season which is good for 142nd best in the country and slightly better than the 69.8 possessions per 40 minutes they averaged last season.
Emptying the Recorder
Some nuggets in the form of unused quotes from press conferences last week.
Jalen Coleman-Lands has reached double-digit scoring in five of his last six games and has found ways to remain productive despite struggling to find the range on his 3-point shot for most of the season (14-for-56; 25 percent).
He’s starting to do a lot of different things,” Leitao said after Coleman-Lands poured in 13 points against Chicago State. “He’s playing good defense, he’s rotating better on offense and defense. He’s sharing the ball better and shot faking. He’s scoring, driving the ball, popping his feet, good mid-range game from 8-10 feet. While he’s not making the shots that he’s accustomed to making that we need him to make I don’t worry because I think that’s the best thing that he does. If you continue to evolve yourself in these other parts of your game the shot is going to fall naturally. He’s a really good shooter, it comes out of his hand well, and he spends a lot of time practicing.”
The Blue Demons outscored Chicago State by 15 points in the second half and never took their foot off the gas pedal despite holding a big lead late. Why?
“I think we learned that last week at Northwestern,” Strus said about the importance of closing out games. “The game is never over, no matter what. If we’re up by 15, 20 we just got to keep going. We learned our lesson last weekend and that hurt us and we aren’t going to let that slide anymore.”
During his seven-year coaching career at DePaul, Leitao has coached two eventual NBA players in Andre Brown and Myke Henry. Will Strus be his third?
“When he first came here, he said that he wanted to go Division II to Division I to give himself a chance to play basketball after college,” Leitao said about Strus. “After five or six days, I said we got to reevaluate that because you can play this game for a long time and make a lot of money doing it. So it was because he has a rare combination of skill, athleticism, and work ethic that you have to have if you are going to challenge some of the real good players in this league and around the country.”