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DePaul's Eli Cain hopes to build on strong freshman season

Looking ahead to the 2016-17 campaign, the New Jersey native has his eyes set on plenty of accolades.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Although DePaul finished 2015-16 season at 9-22 and lost eight of the final nine games, the Blue Demons discovered a pleasant surprise: the maturation of Eli Cain. After a campaign of averaging 10.3 points and three rebounds per game, Cain sees an opportunity to develop into one of the Big East's best players and leaders.

Even though the freshman flourished towards the tail end of the season, his growth couldn't occur without the assistance of head coach Dave Leitao. Following his inconsistent performances throughout the non-conference portion of the schedule, as well as the first five games of Big East play, Cain asked Leitao for advice.

"Coach Leitao told me that he was challenging me because I had the talent, and that I should just relax," Cain said.

In the next game, Cain clearly understood Leitao's message, scoring what was then a season-high 21 points in a loss to Creighton. Three days later, Cain appeared to regress, posting just two points on 1-of-4 from the field versus Marquette. Yet, the 6-foot-6 swingman stayed composed enough to focus his attention on the defensive end.

"I think I had two fouls in the first half, but my teammates didn't let me get down," Cain said. "When Bill [Garrett Jr.] hit the game-winner, that was one of the best moments of the season."

Two weeks later, another substantial accomplishment occurred for Cain. In DePaul's upset win over then ranked No. 11 Providence, Cain hoisted up only nine shots, producing seven points, six rebounds and four assists. However, he prided himself on slowing down Kris Dunn, who scored 14 points on 5-of-20 shooting.

Before committing to DePaul, Cain received interest from a few Big East programs, such as Providence. Hence, defeating the top-25 program, along with containing one of the elite players in the country, brought a smile to his face.

"Kris Dunn will probably go top-five or top-10 in the draft, and I see myself being at that same level in future years," Cain said. "Competing against the best allows you to see where you're at."

During the last eight games of the campaign, Cain tallied 15.3 points per contest and shot 46 percent from the field. Additionally, he ranked second in the conference in three-point shooting, boasting a 42.5 percent clip. To put a bow on his first campaign, he secured a spot on the Big East All-Freshman Team.

Some would be satisfied with those results. Cain detects another level within himself, though.

Upon his arrival at DePaul last summer, the freshman weighed about 185 pounds and benched that same number. As of a few days ago, Cain's scale read 201 pounds, and he even reached 260 pounds on the bar. Thus, he knows that conditioning is a huge factor in order to grasp his aspirations for the subsequent campaign.

"I set big goals for myself, so I want to be on the All-Big East First Team, win Big East Player of the Year and even the Big East Defensive Player of the Year," Cain said. "I'll need to get stronger, though."

Despite the fact that Cain's scoring output will most likely headline his 2016-17 campaign, he considers the ability to distribute the rock as an underrated facet of his game. With guards Devin Gage, Brandon Cyrus and Chris Harrison-Docks entering the fold next season, he'll obtain more opportunities to share the ball.

"I actually think my natural position is at point guard because I see the floor so well and make smart decisions," Cain said.

In the Blue Demons' second meeting versus Golden Eagles last season, Cain provided five assists when Billy Garrett Jr. sat out due to a lower-body injury. Therefore, he displayed a knack for finding open teammates without the starting point guard.

Taking a glimpse at the new roster, Cain's eyes lit up when Cyrus' name was mentioned. While watching the La Lumiere product at the Dick's High School National Tournament, he noticed the guard's toughness on the defensive side of the floor. In the quarterfinals against St. Benedict's, Cyrus held David Beatty, a 2017 four-star recruit, to just five points on 1-of-12 shooting.

"Brandon has a similar game to mine, so I definitely want to take him under my wing," Cain said.

The Big East doesn't appear to weaken much heading into next season. Nonetheless, the guard believes DePaul will take a leap up in the standings, thanks to a much improved roster.

"I can't see us finishing lower than fourth or fifth," Cain said. "I think we'll make the [NCAA] tournament, too."

If Cain manages to snatch one of the aforementioned awards, the Blue Demons could cause bedlam in the conference.