Preview: DePaul looks to upset UConn in quarterfinals of Big East Tournament


Alexa Sandler/The DePaulia

DePaul senior guard Ray Salnave passes the ball against UConn on Jan. 11 at Wintrust Arena.

A year ago, DePaul pulled off an upset in the first round of the Big East Tournament when it defeated Xavier, 71-67. The Blue Demons were slated to face Villanova in the quarterfinals the next day. 

There was no quarterfinals game. With growing concerns about the spread of Covid-19, the Big East and every other conference in America canceled their tournaments. DePaul never got its chance to play in the quarterfinals last year, but that is changing this season.

A year later, the 11th-seeded Blue Demons again shocked the conference when they upset Providence, 70-62, in the first round on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. As a result, DePaul is going to play third-seeded UConn in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

“It’s a great feeling, it’s another game, it’s a different day,” senior guard Charlie Moore said. “Everybody’s going to forget about [the Providence] game come tomorrow, so we just got to come out there with our hard hats on and play a great UConn team. They are great defensively, so we just got to attack them and play defense like we did [on Wednesday].” 

Moore and junior guard Javon Freeman-Liberty carried the Blue Demons Wednesday, combining for 42 points and 14 rebounds in the win over Providence. Moore ran the show on offense, setting up his teammates and knocking down shots in big moments. 

Freeman-Liberty, who missed the previous five games with a concussion, also played a big role on the offensive end, scoring 21 points, but he also played elite defense on Providence guard David Duke. The DePaul junior guard helped limit Duke to only six points on 2-of-9 shooting on the night. 

“It was a big boost to have Javon back,” Moore said. “He’s a great player. We play well off each other, as well. It just felt great out there and I felt like we were all staying aggressive, and we did a great job on the defensive end.” 

But now the challenge gets even harder. There is a reason UConn is the third seed in the Big East Tournament and is among the favorites to win the tournament this week. The Huskies have won six of their last seven games, including four straight, and have one of the best players in the conference: James Bouknight.

The sophomore guard had injury troubles earlier in the regular season, missing eight consecutive games, but when he has been healthy, Bouknight is averaging 19.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. 

He did face DePaul on Dec. 30, which was an 82-61 victory for the Huskies, scoring 20 points and grabbing four rebounds. He missed the second meeting on Jan. 11 in Chicago, but his team was able to come away with a 60-53 win. 

Now that Bouknight is healthy and UConn is firing on all cylinders, DePaul will need to have another strong game if it’s going to pull off another upset. For head coach Dave Leitao, this game also has special meaning to him. He was an assistant coach at UConn for Jim Calhoun for 14 years, but will now face the Huskies for the first time in the Big East Tournament.

“For many years, I’ve maintained myself as a tremendous UConn fan, because they run a great program and continue to do so on both sides, the men and the women,” Leitao said after Wednesday’s game. “My heart, at least a piece of it, will always be there. But this is DePaul. This [is] 2021. And Danny [Hurley] has got a hell of a team that is physical and that has a tremendous out-pitch in Bouknight.”

Leitao also mentioned that his team will need to make some adjustments following the two losses they took to UConn this season. It will start on the defensive end for the Blue Demons — who rank 36th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. 

DePaul will also need another big effort from Moore and Freeman-Liberty on the offensive end. In two meetings against UConn this season, neither player has scored more than nine points and have combined for 13 turnovers. 

“I’ve taken two body blows from them this year, both in Chicago and in Storrs,” Leitao said. “So we’re going to kind of look at it the same way as Providence and what adjustments we can make in a very quick period of time.”