Big East opener pits DePaul Blue Demons against Xavier Musketeers


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

The Big East Conference is wide open this season partly because the step back the Xavier Musketeers have taken as a program this season compared to the last.

The DePaul Blue Demons are the first Big East team to get a crack at this new-look Xavier Musketeer squad with the two programs scheduled for a battle at Wintrust Arena on Saturday at 1 p.m. Xavier has defeated the Blue Demons eight straight times dating back to 2015 and have won 11 of the last 12 meetings between the two team. The Musketeers hold a 13-9 advantage in the all-time series.

A program that snatched away a Big East regular season title from the eventual national champions Villanova Wildcats (which snapped a four-year regular season title streak for Villanova), graduated three key seniors from a team that finished 29-6 and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season.

Those seniors, J.P. Macura, Trevon Bluiett, and Kerem Kanter were the Musketeers three leading scorers from a season ago and accounted for about 43 of the 84 points that team averaged per game. The Musketeers also lost a productive bench player in Kaiser Gates who decided to forgo his senior year of collegiate eligibility to turn pro. He eventually latched on with the Windy City Bulls of the G League after going undrafted in the 2018 NBA draft. Local product Sean O’Mara (Glen Ellyn, Ill.) also graduated last year. Head coach Chris Mack, 215-97 record in nine seasons with the Musketeers, accepted a head coaching job at Louisville after last season.

So, where does all of that roster turnover leave the Musketeers?

Through the nonconference slate of the schedule, the answer to that question is with an 8-5 record and a No. 72 ranking. The Musketeers have beaten the teams that they’re supposed to beat and have lost to the teams that they were supposed to lose to. Their five losses include a Gavitt Tipoff Games defeat against No. 15 Wisconsin, Maui Invitational losses against No. 12 Auburn (in overtime) and tough mid-major opponent San Diego State, and away contest losses against Cincinati and Missouri. The Musketeers best win is against KenPom No. 106-ranked Illinois.

Incumbent starter Quentin Goodin leads the way in the scoring department for the Musketeers. The 6-foot-4-inch guard has been inefficient with his scoring, but still has averaged 14.3 points per game to go along with 5.5 assists per game (second in the Big East). The sophomore duo of Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall chip in 11.9 and 12.5 points per game respectively. Marshall has two double-doubles this season and averages 7.6 rebounds per game. The Musketeers 6-foot-11-inch center Zach Hankins is the second most efficient scorer in the Big East Conference (71.8 percent from the field) and obviously presents matchup issues with his size.

Goodin and Marshall average 9.4 3-point field goal attempts per game between them, but have shot a combined 27 of 107 from this range (25.2 percent). They have a tendency to shoot their team out of games at times. Marshall is listed as questionable for the game Saturday after missing the Musketeers matchup on Dec. 21 against Detroit Mercy with a back injury.

As a team, the Musketeers struggle taking care of the ball (14.2 turnovers per game, tied for 225th in the nation), so there should be transition opportunities on Saturday for a Blue Demon squad that runs well in the open floor.

In a matchup last Saturday against the Boston College Eagles, the Blue Demons were on the precipice of victory before a late 20-8 Eagle run led to DePaul dropping their first game of the season at Wintrust Arena. The Blue Demons will look to put that loss in the rearview mirror as they navigate their 18-game conference slate.

The Blue Demons have not won a Big East opener in four seasons and will look to change that on Saturday on their home floor.