The Blue Demons were up, then they were down, and then they battled back from a deficit that stretched as large as 14 points before Brandon Cyrus came up with a steal to give the Blue Demons the final possession of a single possession game once again.
This time around, head coach Dave Leitao drew up possibly his best play call of the season, getting the team’s best shooter an open look from distance — but DePaul junior Max Strus came up empty on the potential game-winning shot — and the Blue Demons fell narrowly to Marquette in the opening round of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
The 72-69 defeat was fitting in a way, a microcosm of the “close, but no cigar,” campaign that the DePaul Blue Demons turned in this season. Max Strus scored 22 points and stuffed the stat sheet with 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals as he does on most nights as the Blue Demons’ best player, and DePaul took the Marquette Golden Eagles down to the wire before falling to the fringe NCAA at-large hopefuls.
All said, the Blue Demons finished the season with an 11-20 record, going 4-14 in Big East play, and finishing at the bottom of the conference for the 10th consecutive season. Was this season different than the previous 17 seasons that DePaul has spent absent from March Madness? Depends who you ask. If you’re looking for Dave Leitao’s take, he would tell you as he told us after the regular season finale at home this past weekend, that the team fought hard all season, and that the athletic department has given him all the resources needed to get the program to the next level, and now it’s on him to put the final touches on next season.
If you’re looking for the opinion of Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, she’s adamant that the program is heading in the right direction and preaches patience and understanding from the fans, as she told Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune this week, “If you want to do it the right way, you have to be patient,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “You want to build it with young men who are terrific athletes but who are also good students and have good character. It’s not turnkey. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Leitao and Lenti Ponsetto both highlighted the large number of close games that could have gone either way this season, but no matter how much truth there actually is in that sentiment, the bottom line is the Blue Demons are 1-8 in games that either went into overtime, or were decided by five or less points. In games decided by single-digit scores, the Blue Demons only managed to come out as victors twice in 11 attempts.
Personally, as a writer who covered nearly every home game live this season, and listened to the emotion and the passion (and disappointment) of the players on this year’s edition of the team, I felt that the Blue Demons made significant strides on the court, but the results just weren’t there in the final box score all too often.
I also feel — as I’ve stated many times in conversations with some passionate Blue Demons’ fans on Twitter — that DePaul will continue to see improvement next season, probably more than they did this season. The Blue Demons’ Achilles heel this season was their lack of effective guard play. Devin Gage going down with the ACL injury early-on was a crushing blow to that team. It forced Eli Cain, a primary scorer into an uncomfortable role as the primary ball handler. It took Cain well into the conference schedule to finally get the feel for his new assignment and start distributing the ball and running the offense effectively.
The loss of Gage also made Max Strus the new primary scoring option, and unfortunately the only late-game closer for much of the season. While Strus possesses the ability to be a game-changing combo guard/wing on both sides of the ball, it wasn’t long until the rest of the Big East took notice of the new DePaul transfer. Early in the conference schedule Providence head coach Ed Cooley said it perfectly when he was asked about his game-plan for Strus, “cross my fingers”. Cooley noted that Strus is probably the best newcomer to the conference this season, and said that he’s the type of player that, “you better know where he’s at the moment he steps off the bus”.
The rest of the conference took note of Cooley’s assessment, routinely dedicating a double-team to Strus and making the disruption of his screens and efforts to get looks a priority.
“This is a process and it requires patience, and I understand we’ve been trying to do this the last several years with men’s basketball,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “The Big East Conference we think is the right conference for us, and we’re going to do the things we need to do to make our team better and more competitive.” –DePaul Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto
But the real improvements that DePaul hopes to make from this season to next are lost in years of agony that the fan-base has suffered through. When Jean Lenti Ponsetto told the Chicago Tribune earlier this week that the team was looking to flip the script in the close defeats, and that they thought it was a real possibility to do so, she was probably right in her assessment to a degree. The Blue Demons will turn their guard play into a strength next year in all likelihood. Devin Gage will be healthy and facilitating an offense that will feature a back-court mixture of Max Strus, Eli Cain, Brandon Cyrus and Jalen Coleman-Lands.
Coleman-Lands gives the Blue Demons another deep scoring threat to couple with Max Strus, while Eli Cain can return to his comfort zone of slashing and scoring. Sprinkle in defensive minded Brandon Cyrus and a talented Justin Roberts with a year of experience under his belt, and the Blue Demons back-court looks a whole lot more promising than this year’s version. It will be deep, and allow guys to play to their strengths and not be forced into roles that don’t suit their skill-set, and I didn’t even mention Flynn Cameron in that equation, because he’s really an unknown at this point.
The loss of Marin Maric and Tre’Darius McCallum will sting, but Jaylen Butz and Paul Reed will step into those roles, with both having promising stretches in their freshman campaigns. Reed was seldom used, and seldom effective early in the season, and admitted that the lack of playing time caught him off guard and affected his game when he was on the floor. Despite the slow start, Reed turned heads during conference play, showing excellent athleticism and a ton of potential down the stretch.
Am I suggesting we pencil in the date for the ‘2019 Big East Champions’ parade through Lincoln Park? Not at all, so let’s take a breather and realize that what I’m saying is, it’s completely plausible to believe that DePaul can win at least half of the five-point games that they dropped this past season.
At the end of the day, the program’s continued call for patience from the fans is falling on deaf ears. The fans are beyond outraged with the lack of results from the program over the better part of the last two decades, and can you blame them?
The Chicago Bulls were a playoff team for the better part of a decade, and the fans weren’t happy. The Blackhawks are going to miss the NHL playoffs for the first time in a decade this spring, and the calls for heads in the front office are already coming from the fans. Chicago is a passionate sports city, and while not always rational, they’re always passionate.
DePaul is Chicago’s college hoops program, and the fans and alumni want results — and despite the firestorm that is surrounding DePaul hoops’ decision makers — when the wins come consistently, that fiery Chicago passion will turn from anger and distrust to excitement and support.
Feature Photo Credit: Tribune Photo