Watching DePaul Blue Demon basketball this season hasn’t been healthy for the heart.
In DePaul’s four toughest matchups on their nonconference schedule, the Blue Demons have helplessly watched as late leads slipped away (vs. Penn State, at Northwestern, vs. Boston College) or the team has folded for entire second halves (at Notre Dame).
Here’s a recap of what the Blue Demons have endured so far this season.
Nov. 15 vs. Penn State: Leading 68-58 with 3:41 to go, the Nittany Lions cobbled together a 10-0 run to force overtime. To the Blue Demons credit, they held the Nittany Lions to two points in the overtime period to escape with a significant early season victory.
Nov. 24 at Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish outscored DePaul 56-34 in the second half after only leading by three points at the end of the first half (39-36).
Dec. 8 at Northwestern: In Evanston, the Wildcats executed a 25-0 tear across 6:50 of game time to turn a 15-point deficit into a 10- point advantage with 2:58 to play. Northwestern would hold on to win the game 75-68 to hand the Blue Demons their second loss of the season.
Dec. 22 vs. Boston College: The Eagles led for 32 seconds in this game, but it was the final 32 seconds. Down 54-45 with 5:41 remaining, Boston College used a 20-8 run to snatch away a victory from the Blue Demons.
A failure to close out games has already become a reoccurring theme for the Blue Demons this season. What has gone wrong for DePaul when the game has been on the line?
Can’t Defend the 3
An inability to effectively defend the 3-point line, a weakness all season, has been accentuated in the Blue Demons second half collapses this season.
At DePaul’s expense, Notre Dame drained seven of the 13 3-point field goals they attempted in the second half (53.8 percent) of the game between the two teams. Six of Northwestern’s eight field goals during their 25-0 run against DePaul were from 3-point land and they shot 6-for-6 from long range during that span. Boston College went 2-for-3 from 3-point land during their late run.
After buckling against Northwestern in early December largely because they couldn’t stop the Wildcats from scoring beyond the arc, Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao addressed the issue.
“We lost our focus in what our game plan was,” Leitao said after the game. “Again I’ve said this before, they were 4-for-17 at halftime (from 3-point land). They are going to shoot 15 to 20 more [3-point field goals]. Either we are going to have a hand in their face when they do it, or they are going to be open. Our coverage on [Dererk] Pardon down low was really good [in the first half] and after helping and recovering guys got to shooters in time. [In the second half], it got stagnant so inside-out passes became catch-and-shoot threes that allowed them to kind of gain some momentum.”
The Blue Demons have surrendered a 36.3 percent opponent 3-point field goal percentage this season, good enough for 287th best in the country. This weakness has become even more pronounced during some of DePaul’s late collapses this season.
Basketball is a game of runs, but for the Blue Demons the timing of opponents’ runs have been inopportune.
A 9-0 run against Penn State and a 25-0 run surrendered to Northwestern meant that the Blue Demons failed to score a basket for 3:41 of game time and 6:50 of game time respectively. Against Boston College, the Blue Demons committed four turnovers in the last 5:41 of the game. When you don’t score the ball for that duration of time or turn the ball over at that rate, something isn’t clicking with the offense.
“You have to make plays,” Blue Demon center Femi Olujobi said after the loss against Northwestern. “It really just comes down to us [the players]. As a coach, there is only so much you can do. We have to translate what he brings to the table onto the floor. We have to do a better job of that. They can only give us the blueprint and we have to go out and execute.”
The play that kind of sums up the lack of offensive execution during the Blue Demons collapses this season was a late inbounds play against Boston College. A miscommunication between Eli Cain and Devin Gage led to a break opportunity for the Eagles that translated into two free-throw attempts that gave Boston College a late lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“The ball was thrown a little early,” Leitao said after the game. “We practiced that [play, but] we haven’t practiced it in a few days, probably a week. It’s a standard play to have three or four options primarily between the main two guys Max [Strus] and Eli getting the ball. Unfortunately, the ball got thrown in a little bit too early and Devin wasn’t expecting it.”
On the next possession, the lack of offensive execution was a bit less glaring, but nonetheless it was an ugly possession for the Blue Demons. On a critical possession down the stretch, a bunch of actions out beyond the 3-point line puts nobody in position to actually score the ball and leads to Strus having to fling up a low-percentage shot from deep late in the shot clock that he missed.
This is speculative.
The Blue Demons have been playing with a seven man rotation for most of the season, with Strus and Cain both in the top six in the Big East Conference in minutes played per game. Are the Blue Demons gassed by the end of games?
Food for thought.
Mentally Not There
In late game situations, the Blue Demons have crumbled mentally. Leitao has freely acknowledged this at multiple press conferences throughout the season.
“We got up comfortably into double figures and then we didn’t from a mentality standpoint or a game plan standpoint do what we needed to do,” Leitao said after the loss to Boston College on Saturday. “Credit Boston College for their resiliency and hanging in there on the road.”
He conveyed a similar message after the loss to Northwestern.
“I thought the thing that mattered most if you looked at both ends of the floor, was not specifically what we didn’t do on offense and what we didn’t do on defense,” Leitao said. “It was a mindset. I thought we lost our way mentally. When we took our foot off the gas pedal emotionally, a very good team took advantage of it.”
Last season, the Blue Demons were 3-11 in games decided by 10 or less points. There was a feeling within the program that improvement would come naturally this season if the Blue Demons could turn those close losses into close wins.
But so far, the same mental barriers that limited the Blue Demons last season in close games remain stubbornly in place. Resiliency, motivation, and offensive execution are all things that could be lacking late in games when Leitao cites that his team lost their way mentally.
Learning to win is a skill; one that this Blue Demon squad clearly hasn’t mastered yet.