DePaul men’s basketball head coach Dave Leitao had a goal he wanted to accomplish after his team’s game against Valparaiso on Saturday: Having a happy locker room.
The way to accomplish that goal? To win.
The Blue Demons came into Saturday’s game-winning only one game this season, having multiple close losses in the Big East and dealing with all sorts of Covid-19 issues, some of those problems stemming from other teams’ pauses.
So, with all of that in mind, Leitao and his team knew how important it was to win again before resuming Big East play against Butler on Tuesday.
Leitao accomplished that goal in DePaul’s commanding 77-58 win over Valparaiso at Wintrust Arena, giving his team something to celebrate after a couple of hard weeks.
“The game today — happy because we haven’t had a happy locker room in a long time,” Leitao said. “So, winning was our focus over the last two days, we want the locker room to feel different than it has the last few weeks, so we accomplished that goal.”
Saturday’s game was not originally on DePaul’s schedule, but after the Blue Demons’ game against Georgetown was postponed on Wednesday and Valparaiso had its weekend series postponed, both sides quickly came together to schedule a meeting at Wintrust Arena.
And it was exactly the type of game DePaul needed to get back on track. The Blue Demons were only down once, 3-0 in the first minute, and were able to find some offensive rhythm, something that they desperately needed in prior conference games.
“We are a competitive group and that’s something we can hang our hat on,” Leitao said. “We saw it today, but we saw it in spurts. We started off the game well, we had a little bit of a lull, picked it up again; second half we started slow, midway through got to 13 and then it went from 13 to 64-44. Our competitive spirit is something we have to hang our hat on and we did today.”
Saturday’s game was also a nice bounce-back performance for multiple players who had been previously struggling, including senior guard Charlie Moore and sophomore forward Romeo Weems. Moore had an efficient day with 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting and added five assists.
Weems, on the other hand, came out making his first six shots, attacking the basket, making 3-pointers and finishing the day with a game-high 20 points. Prior to Saturday, Weems’ only other game with double-figure scoring was in his season opener against Providence on Dec. 27, when he finished with 21 points in a 95-90 double overtime loss.
“For me personally, I don’t think we were looking bad, we started off a little late,” Weems said. “So, I think tonight we just went out, played hard and had fun.”
DePaul has been one of the most unfortunate teams in college basketball this season with three different Covid-19 related pauses to start the season, forcing them to cancel or postpone the first 10 games. As a result, the Blue Demons didn’t start their season until Dec. 23, becoming the last team from a power conference to play its first game.
But they are also one of a handful of teams that have had three road games canceled or postponed hours before tipoff, the latest coming against Georgetown on Wednesday.
DePaul got back to Chicago Wednesday night and got back onto the court Thursday to simply play basketball again.
“On Wednesday when we found we weren’t gonna play Georgetown, we rearranged our travel plans and got back home Wednesday night,” Leitao said. “Thursday, because of Wednesday, I wanted to make sure they just played basketball. So we played with some intensity, we didn’t mention anything about our opponent — although we kind of knew that we were going to play Valpo.”
Because the Blue Demons have had so many postponements, it’s hard to know when their next game is going to come. The way DePaul scouts for its opposition has also changed this season because there is always uncertainty regarding if that game will be played.
“I’m not gonna lie, we have had a few letdowns — [for] me, it has been hurting,” Weems said. “So, now I just stay ready, I go into every game just hoping we play and I just be ready to play, so do my teammates. We all just lock in with each other and got each other’s back no matter what happened.”
DePaul has been through a lot since they got back to campus in late July, but the players have always wanted to play, even when the team couldn’t catch a break in November and December.
A win over Valparaiso, who is only 3-8 this season, is still a special victory considering what the team has been through and that the next game is never guaranteed in a season dominated by Covid-19.
“I’m not sure we’ve been through the worst of times compared to everybody else, but from the time we got here in late July until Wednesday, the [players] have been through more than anybody could imagine,” Leitao said. “I’d have to talk to you for three hours right now to explain a lot of the things that they have been through, which can affect you physically, obviously, but especially emotionally. Three times we were at arenas or cities where we had games canceled and everything in between that they have had to go through. And still be able to want to play, should play, and then the expectation is to play well. So, I give them a ton of credit, not just for today, but just the resiliency of staying the course as best they can.”