Game Preview: DePaul vs. Illinois State

Rob Grabowski - USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Demons go for their fourth-straight victory Sunday over in-state rival Illinois State.

Coach Oliver Purnell has coached DePaul to a 7-4 record as we near the end of 2013. He's no stranger to this kind of start. Purnell led his squad to 9 early non-conference victories in each of the previous two seasons before faltering down the stretch, winning a total of 5 Big East games during that span.

Determined to not make history repeat itself in the first year of a new Big East Conference, the Blue Demons overcame a slow start against Houston Baptist on Wednesday to rout the Huskies 78-58. After winning 4 of their last 5 games at Allstate Arena, the Blue Demons hit the road for the first time this December in a Sunday matinee clash at Illinois State.

DePaul (7-4) vs. Illinois State (6-5)
Sunday, Dec. 22nd
Redbird Arena, Normal IL
TV: Comcast Sportsnet Chicago, ESPN3
Radio: 560 AM WIND (Chicagoland)

DePaul enters Normal, IL with one of the nation's longest road non-conference win streaks at 6. Illinois State is on a hot streak as well, winning 5 of their last 6, including a home victory over then-25th ranked Dayton. The Redbirds are not a team the Blue Demons should take lightly, considering they have a 4-point victory over Northwestern, DePaul's next opponent, on their record

Who to watch

Cleveland Melvin has been red hot for DePaul, scoring 19, 18, and a season-high 28 points in his last 3 games. The 6-8 senior is having his best season yet, leading the team with 17.6 PPG. Getting the job done on defense as well, Melvin had led the charge on the Blue Demon block party, which has recorded 20 blocked shots in their last 2 games. Not to be overshadowed by his fellow Baltimore native, Brandon Young has turned in a fine season so far himself. Despite an average performance against Houston Baptist (11 points on 4-of-10 shooting), Young has stayed the Blue Demons second-leading scorer with 15.1 PPG. Young needs six points to pass Terry Davis for ninth on the all-time DePaul scoring list.

Like Melvin and Young, Illinois State guard Daishon Knight is from Baltimore, MD, and was a teammate of Melvin at Lake Clifton HS. The junior leads the Redbirds with 14.5 PPG, but can be streaky at times with his shot, going 3-for-9 in Thursday's win over Tennessee State. Ruling the post is freshman Reggie Lynch, one of the best shot blockers in the Missouri Valley Conference, who ranks second in the MVC in field goal percentage (64.7 percent). As good as DePaul's post play has been, they'll have their hands full dealing with the 6-foot-10 Lynch inside the paint.

What to watch out for

DePaul Illinois State
Field Goal PCT .410 .451
Points per game 76.5 72.9
Rebounds per game 36.4 35.5
Leading Scorer Melvin (17.6 PPG) Knight (14.5 PPG)

DePaul can run away with a victory if they can dominate in one single area of play: defense. Illinois State does not have the best offense, shooting .410 percent from the field with only two players averaging double figures. Daishon Knight shoots a .407 percent clip. This creates a good matchup for Brandon Young playing defense on the younger, less-experienced Knight. DePaul's tremendous play on the boards will also be something to watch in this game. The Blue Demons had their way with the Houston Baptist frontcourt Wednesday, creating second and third-chance opportunities throughout the game. If DePaul can generate enough offense through Young, Melvin, and Tommy Hamilton, the Redbirds can be in for a tough day matching them point-for-point.

Outlook

Coach Purnell needs as many non-conference victories as possible in the 4th year of a seven-year contract he signed before the 2010-11 season. After multiple NCAA and NIT tourney trips at Clemson, Purnell has accumulated just 6 Big East conference wins with a program that has finished at the bottom of the Big East for five straight seasons. For Oliver Purnell to ensure his job for next season, he has to bring the Blue Demons from out of bottom of a new, 10-team Big East this year.

That task won't be easy, but it all starts by taking care of business in non-conference action, something that Purnell is no stranger too, but haven't been able to sustain once conference play begins. He has the Demons at 7-4 with two non-conference games remaining, both in-state (at Illinois State today and Northwestern Friday). He has seen continued success out of his seniors Melvin and Young, but will it last? DePaul is notorious for slow starts, and although they have been able to overcome it as of late, a rough start on the road will do nothing but benefit Illinois State. A strong showing throughout against a weary Redbird defense could be of help to DePaul.

DePaul 76, Illinois State 62

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