Preview: DePaul looks to break four-game losing streak to Northwestern


Ryan Gilroy | The DePaulia

DePaul junior forward Paul Reed dunks the ball against Texas Tech on Dec. 4 at Wintrust Arena.

During the 2016-17 season, Northwestern was taking the college basketball world and the city of Chicago by storm en route to their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, while DePaul was languishing at the bottom of the Big East. That season, the Wildcats defeated the Blue Demons 80-64.

How the tables have turned in three years. 

On Saturday night at Wintrust Arena, the Blue Demons will host the Wildcats for their annual series matchup — which is now in its fifth season and will continue through the 2024 season. But it’s now DePaul’s turn to try and take over the city of Chicago as they look to get back to a place they haven’t been in over a decade: the NCAA Tournament. 

In order to get the support of the city and get people to back the team like they did with Northwestern and Loyola in 2017 and 2018, DePaul will need to start by beating their rival: Northwestern. The Blue Demons have lost their last four games against the Wildcats, including blowing a double-digit lead last season at Northwestern. But this might be the Blue Demons’ best chance to beat the Wildcats for the first time since 2013 when Oliver Purnell was the head coach at DePaul.

“As all these city games and rivalries go, it brings out a different energy,” head coach Dave Leitao said on Friday. “And whatever building is played in, our building, I felt a little bit more with UIC. I think especially last year at Northwestern with the new and renovated Welsh-Ryan Arena, and it will be like that when we play them [Saturday] night. So, it gets them excited, it gets us excited and gets both fan bases excited. I think because of what college basketball means in the city, it gets the city excited as well.”

DePaul comes into Saturday’s game at 11-1 after they beat Cleveland State 73-65 on Wednesday. Northwestern, however, stands at 5-5 and are coming off a 77-72 loss to Michigan State, also on Wednesday. But the Wildcats have had a rough go of things to begin the season, they opened the season with an awful loss to Merrimack at home and then followed that up with another home loss 11 days later to Radford. 

In most rivalries, however, the current records of both sides usually get thrown out of the window. Northwestern can point to the fact that they have beaten DePaul the last four seasons, while the Blue Demons can point to their form to start the season and use that as confidence against Northwestern.

“If we go back to last year, it was an ebb and flow [game], we were up by double figures in pretty good shape and then they came right back at us,” Leitao said. “In most games, but this game in particular because of the rivalry and what it means, you got to play a full 40 minutes — and we didn’t [last season], and we paid a heavy price for it. So, our opportunity in any game, but this game in particular is to play that full 40 minutes and concentrate from start to finish.”

In their last game on Wednesday, DePaul didn’t have their best game for the entire 40 minutes as they say saw Cleveland State climb back from being down 16 in the first half to tying the game at 49 in the second half. One of the reasons for the turnaround was the Vikings started pressing DePaul and forced turnovers as a result. In the second half alone, the Blue Demons committed 15 turnovers which resulted in 24 points for Cleveland State. 

“So, [Cleveland State] was playing with nothing to lose,” junior forward Paul Reed said. “They were sending all of their guys at us, trapping as we soon as we possessed the ball — and playing wild. We had to adapt, it just took us a minute to adapt and figure it out.”

The saving grace for the Blue Demons on Wednesday was their free-throw shooting, an aspect of their game that has been weak this season. But against Cleveland State, with the game on the line the last few minutes, the Blue Demons hit nine free-throws on the last two minutes to escape with a 73-65 lead. Out of those nine free-throws, Reed — who is a 79 percent free-throw shooter — knocked down three of them. 

“I’ve been working on my free-throws,” Reed said. “I’m a good free-throw shooter, so when the time comes for me to knock it down, and especially when we need them, I guess that clutch instinct comes in and takes over.”

Against Northwestern, a team that only gives up 63.6 points per game, free-throw shooting might be the deciding factor again if the game is close down the stretch — the Wildcats hit their free-throws at a clip of 76.1 percent. 

For a lot of DePaul players this will be their first time playing Northwestern, a game that will not only give the Blue Demons a chance to get to 12-1 before conference play begins on Dec. 30 — but an opportunity to turn the tide in Chicago and get more people to support the team. 

“I feel like everyone plays with a chip on their shoulder because DePaul really wasn’t that good the past couple of years,” freshman forward Romeo Weems said. “So, we all just play hard, play for each other with that chip knowing the bigger picture. We got to get better every day. I feel like we have a really great defensive team where we still got to get better every day. We have to play better, pass the ball better, so we just try and go do that.”