Injury plagued Blue Demons battle for CBI championship


DePaul fans watch the Blue Demons beat the Central Michigan Chippewas in the first round of the CBI tournament last Wednesday. Xavier Ortega I The DePaulia

This one is for all the marbles.

After splitting the first two games of the series, the 2019 College Basketball Invitational tournament championship comes down to a showdown between South Florida and DePaul on Friday at McGrath-Phillips Arena at 6 p.m. Two and four points respectively decided the first two games of the series with South Florida squeaking out a 63-61 win with a last second layup on Monday in Tampa and DePaul responding with a 100-96 overtime win on Wednesday at McGrath-Phillips Arena.

DePaul is 0-1 this season when they’ve played the same team a third time, losing 82-74 to St. John’s in the first round of the Big East Conference tournament after beating the Red Storm twice during the regular season. If the Blue Demons want to win game three and ultimately the CBI championship tonight, they will have to do it shorthanded.

Redshirt sophomore guard Devin Gage continues to receive doctor evaluations for a head injury he sustained in the Blue Demon’s battle with Longwood last week and is questionable to play tonight. Sophomore forward Jaylen Butz is also listed as questionable with a right arm injury. Senior guard Eli Cain dislocated his elbow and wrist during the Blue Demon’s win against South Florida on Wednesday and won’t play tonight.

“When we talked about it last night, from grade school, throughout high school to here at DePaul he’s never missed a game,” Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao said about Cain. “Ironic as it is, his last college game is the one he won’t get to play. There’s something about that that is challenging obviously, but there’s something about that that makes you kind of look at things atmospherically and spiritually. Understanding, here’s a plan whether you understand it or not on why things happen. He more than anybody realizes that and it makes him feel comforted in knowing that there’s something about this process that’s challenging him. He’s ready to take on all challenges. He’s in a good place and I think the team as a result feels better because he’s not in a dark hole wallowing over not getting to play in his last game.”

“Right after what happened to Eli the first thing he said when he got up, he wasn’t even worried about himself he said go win this for me,” Blue Demon big man Femi Olujobi said. “Pretty much we wanted to do whatever we needed to do to bring that victory home for him and make him proud.”

Utilizing short rotations is nothing new for the Blue Demons. Before, it was out of necessity as only seven or eight guys were ready to effectively contribute at the Division I level this season. Now injuries may force Leitao to search further down his bench for productivity.

“Next man up, it’s been like that all year,” senior guard Max Strus, who needs 11 points to join Mark Aguirre [who did it twice] as the only Blue Demon to reach 700 points in a season, said. “You know you lose some [players to injury] and guys have stepped up all year. Looking forward to other guys contributing. It will be more special to make it a team win so looking forward to it.

With Gage potentially out with injury and Cain out for sure, the expectation is Lyrik Schreiner and Flynn Cameron will fill those minutes and at least some of the productivity.

Offensively, the burden will fall mostly on two players for the Blue Demons. Strus poured in 32 points on Wednesday marking the sixth time this season he has crested the 30-point mark. Paul Reed’s ascent has continued in the CBI tournament where he has averaged 19.8 points and 10.8 rebounds in five games (he was held to seven points in the first game against South Florida which brought down his scoring average). Reed exploded for a career-high 28 points though on Wednesday.

“He was extremely active,” Leitao said about Reed’s performance in the second game against South Florida. “His first points were on the offensive glass and [he was successful because] his putbacks and his refusal to be boxed out because I know he was on the scouting report to be boxed out. It kind of fueled his confidence. Hitting that big shot late in the game from 3 was huge, it was a culmination of how he’d been playing from an activity standpoint. Leading us in the fast break which is sometimes good for us but sometimes it’s a little bit hairy. As I said, he’s a very big part of what we do and as I said because we don’t call that many plays for him he becomes even more important in terms of his activity.”

A win would give the Blue Demons their 20th of the season, the first time they’ve accomplished that feat since the 2006-2007 season and would be the first time since 1945 that the Blue Demons have captured a postseason championship (DePaul won the National Invitation tournament that year).