Lessons learned for DePaul in first 100 games of new Big East

Villanova’s overtime win against Creighton Wednesday night not only helped the Wildcats open up a two-game lead atop the Big East standings, but also meant each team had played 100 games in the Big East since realignment prior to the 2013-2014 season.

Coming as no surprise, Villanova has dominated the league by compiling a conference record of 87-13 and two national championships in that time period. On the other end of the spectrum, DePaul sits just 22-78 since the new Big East formed featuring 10 teams that now include Butler, Xavier and Creighton that replaced Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Connecticut, Rutgers and South Florida.

After former head coach Oliver Purnell won just nine conference games in DePaul’s first two seasons in the league, in stepped Dave Leitao for his second stint with the Blue Demons. It has been tough sledding for DePaul, which have accumulated a record of 14-51 in conference play following their win over Xavier Saturday night.

In those 65 games, Leitao said the league reminds him of his first stint with DePaul, that lasted for three seasons from 2002-2005, in which every night brought a new challenge — home or away.

“The high level of games that we play,” Leitao said. “The competitive nature of the games we play which reminds me a lot, there’s different teams, so it’s not 100 percent the same [but] it’s the Big East that I was always a part of. Knowing that if you walk into somebody else’s gym you’re taking your life into your own hands because it’s very difficult to win on the road and you’re getting some high-quality coaching, as well as, some high quality players.”

Senior guard, Eli Cain, who arrived at DePaul at the same time as Leitao also pointed to the competition of the league as one of the biggest things he’s learned over his four years.

“I always say this is, if not the most competitive, one of the most competitive leagues in the country,” Cain said. “Every year we have at least four to seven teams make it to the NCAA Tournament, NBA guys, actual teams, it’s not like a league where we just have good players on just bad teams, we have national championship teams, it’s one of the most versatile leagues in the country.”

This challenge of slowing down star players has included the likes of Kris Dunn, Henry Ellenson, Justin Patton, Josh Hart, Mikial Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVencenzo and Omari Spellman, who were all drafted following their playing days. The mix of talented coaches and players is something Leitao said he’s told other coaches is type of thing that keeps you up late at night preparing for these many matchups.

“There’s a lot of really good strategic things that go on in everyone else’s gym that you got to be prepared for,” Leitao said. “There’s a lot of skill, there’s a lot of talent and then teams make a lot of adjustments so you got to be on your toes as a coach. From a coaching standpoint it’s really exciting.”

Despite being 5-6 in league play this season, DePaul has improved on both sides of the court averaging 75.9 points per game this season, which is more than four points better than last year. Defensively, DePaul has given up just 72 points per game, also an improvement over last year.

According to Leitao, a lot of this has to do with an increased amount of talent led by the growth of Paul Reed, who’s averaging 11.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, as well as, graduate transfer Femi Olujobi, 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. This has allowed the team to have a better mindset offensively, as well as better movement. On defense, the whole group has also had better attention to detail than past seasons, he said.

“It’s allowed me as a coach each day that I walk into the gym to really be encouraged,” Leitao said. “One, I really like these guys and they want to play well together and they want to do the same things that everybody wants to do so it’s kept me encouraged but there’s just progress you can see.”

For Reed, his growth has been especially notable and he said it starts with simply enjoying himself more on the court.

“The biggest thing I learned is you got to have fun with it,” Reed said. “You can’t just go out there with the mindset of playing for the coach you just got to have fun with it.”

The Blue Demons have also been better this season at avoiding losing streaks. After losing three games in a row four times last season during the regular season, the Blue Demons have only had one such streak this season, which they snapped Saturday with a win over Providence. For Cain, that big win followed a team meeting senior guard described Max Strus as the moment the Blue Demons said six conferences losses were already too many and it was time to go.

“It was big, it was really big,” Cain said. “No night in the Big East is an off day, no team has an off day like you said [Wednesday night] Villanova was No. 1 and they went to OT with Creighton so it’s no off-night in the Big East. You got to bring your game every night and you can lose three, you can lose seven in a row. It was really big to snap that losing streak and get back on the right track and winning.”

The journey for Cain has been a rewarding one so far after the Blue Demons won no more than four conference games each of the last three seasons.

“It’s really fun being that this is my last go-around it’s what we worked for,” Cain said. “It’s what me and coach and everybody has been around for four years had envisioned that some day it was going to happen and right now it’s just our opportunity. We’re playing pretty well right now sitting in the middle of the pack and we just got to keep pushing and win those close games and do what we believe we can do.”

Down the stretch, DePaul is looking to finish strong and at least match or surpass their six-win mark that remains their high point since joining the new Big East. Leitao compared this stretch run for DePaul to a golf tournament looking to make their run in a crowded conference.

“This time of year in golf you call it moving day and February you start to determine what’s what and who’s who,” Leitao said. “You don’t want to keep exchanging wins for losses, you want to kind of get some rhythm and the way you do that is to one, keep your guys fresh so you’re not practicing as long but yet you are practicing equally as hard. They got to stay fresh mentally and stay encouraged through highs and lows and so I think the team that does that will continue to emerge.”

That challenge continues with a home game against Marquette, who currently sit in second place in the conference but another of those teams who sits under .500 since the new Big East formed.