Men’s basketball mid-season review


Ben Zebrowski

Forward Javan Johnson goes up for a layup in the second half against UConn.

DePaul men’s basketball head coach Tony Stubblefield isn’t going to make excuses for his team’s 2-9 record in the Big East.

Injuries. Covid-19 pause. Shorthanded for a lot of games. Different starting lineups. All are possible reasons as to why DePaul hasn’t been able to translate its non-conference success to the Big East.

But Stubblefield isn’t hearing any of that.

“Obviously, you never want to pause, but it’s no excuse,” he said. “I don’t know the exact number but I would say eight of the 11, seven of the 11 Big East teams have had to go on a Covid pause. We have been dealt the hand we have been dealt; we can’t look back on it now and cry about it.”

Stubblefield is in his first full year as a head coach. In the 21 games that he has coached this season he has seen two different DePaul teams: one that went 9-1 in non-conference play and secured a huge road victory over Louisville, and then one in the Big East, where wins have been hard to come by.

After spending 11 years as an assistant coach at Oregon under Dana Altman, Stubblefield is getting his first taste of Big East play as the head coach.

“There’s great coaching in this league — Jay Wright, Kevin Willard, Shaka Smart,” he said. “The tacticians in this league. Getting older, more experienced, veteran guys that can play at this level is something that is very important.”

Only two players have played in all 21 games for DePaul this season — Brandon Johnson and Philmon Gebrewhit. Leading scorer Javon Freeman-Liberty, who averages over 21 points per game, has missed the last five games due to a groin injury, and forward Javan Johnson recently suffered a hand injury, with his status still up in the air.

In December, when the Omicron variant started to spread around the country, DePaul was one of many teams forced to go on pause. The Blue Demons canceled their game against Northwestern and had to postpone their first two Big East games versus Seton Hall and Creighton.

Yet, DePaul’s first-year head coach isn’t letting that be a reason for his team’s poor record in conference play through 11 games.

“It’s not ideal to go on a pause, but we are not the only team in the country that’s gone on a pause,” he said. “We just have to figure it out.”

All the disruptions that DePaul has faced this season due to injuries and other factors have forced Stubblefield to test out different rotations. The Blue Demon have run out six different starting lineups in 11 conference games this season — the most in the Big East.

Without the services of Freeman-Liberty for the last five games, the offensive numbers have taken a step back. In three consecutive games versus Creighton, Villanova and UConn, DePaul didn’t score more than 50 points. The Blue Demons also shot below 40 percent from the field in all three games.

Following the 57-50 loss to UConn on Jan. 29, DePaul had a week off to prepare for its trip to Xavier. Those extra days off allowed the team to work on fixing some offensive issues it had in the previous couple of games.

“As long as we pay attention to the details and take every possession like it’s our last possession, I feel like we will come out on top,” Brandon Johnson said.

DePaul put in a much more efficient offensive performance versus Xavier on Saturday, shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and over 88 percent from the free-throw line. As a result, the Blue Demons — who were led by Courvoisier McCauley’s 21 points — eked out a 69-65 victory over the No. 21 Musketeers.

Before the game, sophomore guard Jalen Terry talked about sharing the ball more on the offensive end.

“We are starting to move the ball more and like making sure [that] everybody gets to touch the ball before we rush up the shot,” he said.

DePaul finished with 11 assists on 28 made shots against Xavier, which is the most assists the team has had in a game since its first meeting with the Musketeers on Jan. 19.

The Blue Demons still hope to get Freeman-Liberty back at some point this season. With nine regular season games left before the Big East tournament, Stubblefield wants to see his team continue to put together more consistent performances.

“These games are going to come down to possessions,” he said. “A lot of people look at the last two, three, four or five possessions of the game — what I’m talking about is a missed box-out in the first half, unforced turnovers in the first half, bad shots, they are things that you can’t do and be successful in the Big East.”