COLUMN: Injuries or not, fans’ frustration with this DePaul team is warranted


Patrick Sloan-Turner

DePaul head coach Tony Stubblefield hangs his head in a nonconference matchup with Samford on 11/30. Stubblefield’s squad has a record of 6-7 through their first 13 games of the 2022-23 season.

DePaul men’s basketball had high expectations heading into the 2022-23 season, but unexpected injuries, slow starts to games and a lack of adjustments by head coach Tony Stubblefield has put the fan base’s aspirations on hold. 

The fans have a right to be frustrated, as they were promised that this team and season would be different from recent years. They were told this isn’t the same old Blue Demons squad that has been the laughing stock of the Big East Conference for the last two decades. 

Still, I’ll concede DePaul’s disappointing season up to this point isn’t all on the coaching staff, as they’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity compared to other schools. South Florida junior transfer Caleb Murphy went down with a wrist injury during the offseason and still has yet to make his Blue Demons debut. 

The expectation of many was that Murphy would be DePaul’s lead guard for the season, replacing 2021-22 star Javon Freeman-Liberty. It’s unclear to this point if Murphy will even play a game for the Blue Demons the rest of this campaign.

The team continues to share little to no details about Murphy’s timetable for a return.

Murphy’s injury was just the beginning, as a few days before the season opener, senior center Nick Ongenda went down in practice with a hand injury and has been sidelined ever since. 

Ongenda’s season is more than likely over, as once he was reevaluated a few weeks ago, the team doctors determined his wrist injury would require surgery. 

Stubblefield also lost graduate senior Yor Anei to an undisclosed foot injury and have been short-handed at the center position ever since. Eral Penn has filled in, but at 6-foot-6, I don’t see Penn on the same defensive level as the 6-foot-10 Anei or 6-foot-11 Ongenda. 

Anei returned against Creighton on Christmas day, but had minimal impact, recording just four rebounds during his 13 scoreless minutes of game action.

The team desperately needs someone that can physically go toe-to-toe with opposing big men and an undersized Penn unfortunately isn’t going to get it done when going against players who are 6-foot-10 or taller. 

While Penn is a high-energy player that can provide an offensive spark at times, he also lacks the size and impact on the boards that DePaul needs. The Blue Demons have been out-rebounded by their opponents 38.9 to 34 so far this season, compared to last, when they out-rebounded opponents 38.5 to 36.2. 

The team has faced an overwhelming amount of adversity, but what can’t be ignored is DePaul’s continued slow starts in seemingly every game. This season, the Blue Demons have typically trailed early and been forced to work their way back in the second half. By then, it’s unfortunately, too little, too late.

Myself and other reporters have asked Stubblefield during press conferences about the team’s slow starts to games. His non-answer has typically been the cliche of how it falls on him as the coach and that he needs to do a better job getting the team more prepared. 

One of the main reasons the team trails early on is due to their over-reliance on the three-point shot. As long as the three is going down, DePaul typically stays in the game or builds a nice lead, but when the shots aren’t necessarily going down; the games can get ugly quick. 

This three-point reliance strategy by Stubblefield is unsustainable and feels like a desperate approach to cope with the team’s lack of size and defensive struggles. 

If DePaul has any chance of turning their season around, they’ll need to implement an offense even more focused on around graduate forward Javan Johnson and stop relying on the three ball.

DePaul’s season has been up and down, but the biggest surprise has been Johnson’s emergence. He’s averaged 16.4 points and five rebounds per game, while shooting 42.9% from three. 

Johnson’s heroic, late-game performances have caused fans to overlook his slow starts to games that – at times – can put the team in a hole early, especially since the team lives or dies off his success. During DePaul’s six wins, Johnson has averaged 22.7 points per game compared to their seven losses, when he’s only averaged just 11.1 points.

Outside of Johnson and Oklahoma transfer Umoja Gibson, there isn’t much production elsewhere on the roster. Cruz has potential, but he doesn’t see the court nearly as much as he probably should due to Stubblefield’s preference of playing veterans over talent. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if Cruz entered the transfer portal this offseason if he doesn’t see an increase in minutes. He was a four-star recruit for a reason, and is DePaul’s biggest get since 2007, so why isn’t he treated like it? 

It’s understandable that young players need to earn their spots, but does Jalen Terry really give the team that much more upside than a talent like Cruz? Something to note, Terry followed Stubblefield to DePaul from Oregon when the head coach was first hired and has been the team’s go-to point guard this season with Murphy out.

Heading into Big East play, DePaul has a lot that needs to be worked on, as this season has arguably been a disappointment. The team hasn’t lived up to expectations. If the Blue Demons want to turn their season around, they’ll need to do it quickly, having already started Big East play.

Even with the amount of adversity the program has faced, it’s unacceptable for the fans to suffer through two three-game losing streaks and a 38-point loss to a rival in Northwestern, which was their largest margin of defeat since their loss to Providence in March 2020.

If Stubblefield doesn’t give the fans something to be excited about by the season’s end, the fan base could turn on him like they did Dave Leitao. DePaul has had little success over the last two decades. The time to return to relevance is now.