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Big East 2017-18 Season Preview: DePaul Blue Demons

DePaul has nowhere to go but up, right?

NCAA Basketball: St. John at DePaul Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17 Record

9-23 (2-16, 10th in Big East)

2017-18 Preseason KenPom ranking

118 (10th in Big East)


Head Coach

Dave Leitao (76-79 in five total seasons at DePaul. 58-34 in first stint, 18-45 in second stint. 161-174 in coaching career)

The second year of the second Dave Leitao Era of DePaul basketball looked… a lot like the first year, much to the chagrin of DePaul fans. With single-digit wins in each of the past two seasons and just five total Big East wins, year three could very well be make or break for Leitao. It’s unlikely that DePaul is an NCAA Tournament team, but a third-straight single-digit win season could mean a change is in order.

To Leitao’s credit, recruiting has picked up a bit in his time there (especially this season), and bringing in former La Lumiere head coach Shane Heirman as an assistant coach could pay off big time, as La Lumiere is turning into a basketball powerhouse not far at all from DePaul. At the end of the day, though, the product has to translate to on-court success.


Last Season at a Glance

The 2016-17 season was another down year for DePaul. They finished in the cellar of the Big East again, finishing with a record of 9-23. The season started out on a tough note when they lost against Rutgers, but they responded with a good three-game winning streak. That was snapped at Northwestern as the Blue Demons lost to their Chicagoland counterparts 80-64. The next handful of games went as expected (other than their loss to UIC at home) but then disaster struck as they dropped a game to Missouri State at home. The double-digit loss was exactly what DePaul didn’t need as they were heading into conference play against Villanova five days after. It was a decent start to the season but once it got to them playing teams in the Big East, it was a rough ride for the Blue Demons and their fans.

They also got absolutely clocked in conference play with a record of 2-16. Those two wins came against Providence and Georgetown and you can also throw in a gutsy performance they had against Villanova on the road where they only lost by three. But other than those games, there wasn’t a lot to be positive about for DePaul.


Key Returnees

G Eli Cain (15.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.7 APG, .398 FG%)

F Tre’Darius McCallum (9.7 PPG. 6.8 RPG, 1.5 SPG, .443 FG%)

G Brandon Cyrus (6.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG, .379 FG%)

F Joe Hanel (4.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, .649 FG%)

G Devin Gage (3.7 PPG, .474 FG%)

While DePaul has one of the smallest groups of key returnees in the Big East, there is some quality here. Cain is unquestionably the leader of the Blue Demons, both on and off the court, especially with Billy Garrett’s graduation (more on him later). Cain saw a rise in his points per game and rebounds per game compared to 2015-16, but his field goal percentage took a dip, likely due to the fact that he attempted 170 more shots than the previous season.

Additionally, Tre’Darius McCallum was one of the most underrated players in the Big East. He finished second in the conference in rebounding, becoming the first Blue Demon to finish in the top two in the conference in rebounds per game since DePaul joined the Big East in 2005. With a season of experience under his belt, it’s safe to assume McCallum can make an even bigger impact this year.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at DePaul Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It will be interesting to see how Cyrus and Gage spent the summer following their first season of college basketball. Both showed flashes of very good play last year and will likely be asked to do more as part of this returning group.


Departures

G Billy Garrett Jr. (14.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, .388 FG%, Graduated)

G Chris Harrison-Docks (6.1 PPG, .362 FG%, Graduated)

G Darrick Wood (3.8 PPG, 1.2 RPG, Graduated)

G RJ Currington (3.4 PPG, 1.7 RPG, Graduated)

C Levi Cook (2.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, Transferred)

F Al Eichelberger (1.6 PPG, 1.2 RPG, Transferred)

G Erten Gazi (1.2 PPG, Transferred)

Let’s start with the obvious one. After what seems like forever, Billy Garrett Jr. is no longer at DePaul. He graduated and is looking to catch on in the NBA G-League. Garrett did a little bit of everything in his four years and was a leader for the Blue Demons, so his absence will be felt in many different ways this year.

Going down this list, it may seem like none of these losses would hurt the Blue Demons too much. However, when you add up the PPGs, these seven players accounted for 33.4 of DePaul’s 68.9 points per game last year. That’s just under 50% of the Blue Demons’ scoring departing. To make matters worse, guys like Eichelberger or Cook, both of whom probably would have had a bigger role this year as a result of graduations and another year of experience both chose to transfer. Cook, in particular, could have been an asset. There aren’t too many 6’10, 300-pound players around the Big East, or around the country for that matter.

NCAA Basketball: DePaul at Georgetown Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports

It’s also not ideal that it seems like more players transfer from DePaul than any other power conference school in the country. The past two offseasons have seen Cook, Eichelberger, Gazi, Develle Phillips, Oumar Barry, Fred Scott, and Tommy Hamilton all leave the program. That can be for any number of reasons, but eventually it’s something that has to be addressed. It’s hard to build sustained success when you lose 75% of your recruiting class after just one year of having them all together.

The good news for DePaul? Things might not be as bad as they seem, thanks to a talented group of newcomers.

Key Additions

Justin Roberts

Marin Maric

Austin Grandstaff

Max Strus

While the Blue Demons may have lost some pop in Garrett Jr, they have some reinforcements coming in, and some good ones at that. This was a good offseason for Leitao and his coaching staff as they were able to bring in some top recruiting talent as well as grab a top transfer target.

Starting off with incoming freshman, the addition of Justin Roberts will be a big one for DePaul. Other than Garrett Jr. last year, they really struggled when it came to the point guard spot. Gage struggled to adjust to the college game in his first season and Harrison-Docks played limited minutes. The bench unit is very shaky and will be a sore spot for DePaul this season unless someone can step up. Ideally, they would love for somebody to take command and become a reliable offensive option whenever Cain takes a break. Roberts could provide some speed off the bench. His size might be an issue for him defensively and there will be a learning curve. But he seems good enough offensively to get himself reserve minutes this season.

Marin Maric is a center that DePaul has been waiting for a while. While Joe Hanel played a lot of minutes for the Blue Demons, he was undersized and under produced (4.6 points and 4.8 rebounds a game last season). The arrival of Maric from Northern Illinois immediately helps out DePaul’s big man rotation, especially with the losses of Cook and Eichelberger. At 6’11, 240 lbs, Maric will bring size and scoring as he averaged 14.4 points last season. With a field goal percentage of 56.8%, he’s an efficient scorer and finishes well at the rim. Maric also has flashed the ability to hit a long jumper and it could be useful in pick and pop situations.

Grandstaff and Strus are transfers, who are eligible after sitting last year out . This will be Grandstaff’s third team and Strus is coming from D-2 school Lewis University. Both were low key in terms of transfer buzz but expect them to bring some spark to DePaul’s bench. They will certainly help stretch the floor with their shooting, especially Grandstaff who shot 39% while at Ohio State.

Everyone on this list with the exception of Maric will likely be coming off the bench to start the season and their production will be huge in helping DePaul stay afloat whenever Cain leaves the game.


Projected Starting Lineup

PG: Devin Gaga

SG: Eli Cain

SF: Max Strus

PF: Tre’Darius McCallum

C: Marin Maric

We know Cain and McCallum will be in the lineup. They started every single game for the Blue Demons last season and are the two leading returning scorers.

Maric also seems like a lock for the lineup at this point. You don’t usually get a one-season graduate transfer to come to your team and sit on the bench. Plus, as noted, DePaul has some size deficiencies and Maric is a natural fix.

Gage is likely the starting point guard. While he didn’t start a single game there last season, it is his natural position.

That last lineup spot is a bit of a wild card, though. It depends on a couple things. First, will there be games where Leitao chooses to go a bit bigger and games where he chooses to go a bit smaller? It’s hard to say, given the fact that DePaul rolled out with the same lineup (Garrett-Cyrus-Cain-Hanel-McCallum) for every single game last year.

Two players who certainly have to factor into that final lineup spot are Grandstaff and Strus. Grandstaff was excellent and heavily recruited in high school before committing to Ohio State, then transferring to Oklahoma. He’s finally eligible for the Blue Demons, and the hype is significant. Leitao has been very high on Strus’ potential, so he could very well have the edge over Grandstaff for the spot.


Key Nonconference Matchups

Notre Dame (November 11)

Illinois (November 17)

Michigan State (November 23)

Connecticut/Oregon (November 24)

Northwestern (December 16)

DePaul’s nonconference escapades went decently last season, going .500 at 7-7. This season will feature some huge matchups. In nonconference play, DePaul will be facing three teams who are in the preseason top 25 (MSU, Notre Dame, and Northwestern). It’s a tough schedule for them but it’s also exciting.

The games against Notre Dame and Northwestern will be massive since they are at DePaul’s new home in Wintrust Arena. The ND game will be the season opener and putting up a good performance will surely help build optimism for the program. Against a team like ND, it’s tough to expect the Blue Demons to win, but if they can make it close and entertaining, it would classify as a good performance.

The Michigan State and Connecticut/Oregon games will be at the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Oregon. Once again, it’s all about the performance for DePaul and if they can possibly steal a game against either Connecticut/Oregon, the Invitational experience will be a positive.

Looking at the season schedule overall, there are some really winnable games along with the ones we just mentioned above. Ideally for DePaul, they don’t slip up against the smaller teams and if they are able to pull out one or two wins against the teams on this list it would be huge for them heading into conference play.


Reasons for Optimism

Eli Cain can lead the team: This is a truth that has been hammered home again and again. Cain is easily the best player on the team and is the leader of this squad. A lot, if not all, of DePaul’s success in a game will depend on how good the shooting guard plays. He led his team in scoring with 15.6 points per game last year and will likely do it again this season. Cain has shown he’s good enough to be a reliable number one option for any team and you can expect him to will DePaul to some more wins this season.

Improved bench/new additions: This works in relation with the first reason for optimism. Despite Cain be awesome and the man for DePaul, he can’t always do it on his own. He needs help offensively. It’s evident DePaul is a completely different team whenever Cain takes a breather and last season their bench was a real struggle to watch. It would be in those moments where games really got away from DePaul. This year might be different though, especially with the additions of Roberts, Grandstaff, and an improved Devin Gage. It’s still obviously too early to tell but the new additions are bringing some optimism when it comes to DePaul’s reserve unit.

A year wiser: The 2017-18 season is another rebuilding one for DePaul but don’t expect things to be as bad as they were last year. This squad is a year older and so are the key players in Cain and Gage. For Leitao, having the guys who believe in your system helps when it comes to helping the new faces and additions adjust. Having a guy like Cain, Gage, and a Tre’Darius McCallum really help and them being a year older and wiser will help this squad.


Reasons for Pessimism

The Big East: While DePaul is deeper and more talented than it has been in the past two seasons, the rest of the Big East is, as well. DePaul’s reliance on transfers and inexperienced players may hinder it in conference play when going up against teams like Xavier, Villanova, and Seton Hall, all of which are loaded with experienced upperclassmen.

Size: While Maric should be a big (pun intended) asset for the Blue Demons, they really don’t have a lot of big man depth after him. Freshman Jaylon Butz and senior Peter Ryckbosch are the only two other players who are true “big men”, which is why it would have been nice to have Levi Cook stick around.

Old habits die hard: DePaul is DePaul. They’ve won five Big East games in two seasons under Leitao. They seem to struggle to put everything together in a single game, doing any number of things week but having one fatal flaw that does them in. Can they overcome that this season?


Best Case Scenario

Vijay: The Big East is still the Big East and that means nothing is going to come easy to DePaul this season. In an ideal world, DePaul would win around 7-8 games in conference play as they try to inch closer and closer to being .500 against the big boys. We talked about this earlier but an ideal outcome in nonconference play would be seeing DePaul beat at least 2-3 of those high-caliber opponents, which would include beating one of the ranked ones. It would be a huge leap forward for the program. To top it off, the best case scenario for DePaul would be having Cain and at least one other player have huge years and it propels them to finish around 5th or 6th in the Big East.

Robert: Vijay pretty much nailed it. The absolute best case scenario would be to take everyone by surprise, pick up a couple good nonconference wins, and hope to get lucky in Big East play. Maybe Eli Cain will continue to progress and end up averaging 20 points per game this year. Maybe Tre’Darius McCallum can show he’s still very good. Maybe Marin Maric was the missing piece. While it’s hard to imagine DePaul finishing higher than ninth in the Big East, that would be an improvement over the last two years.


Worst Case Scenario

Vijay: Obviously the worst case scenario would be a repeat of last year. Some really bad losses in nonconference play, getting blown out by some of your marquee matchups, and come in shaky into Big East play. Then against their conference opponents, they get absolutely blown out of the gym, win 2-3 games, and finish in the cellar of the Big East again.

Robert: Last year or anything worse. If DePaul finishes the year with single-digit wins again, changes should be in order.

Prediction

Vijay: The new stadium will generate some buzz and there will be hope for DePaul basketball. I think nonconference play will go OK with everything going as expected in terms of results and they pull off an upset win. Conference play will be the same as always but this time DePaul will have the upper hand against Georgetown and then pull off some stunners in the process, resulting in 5-6 wins for them. In the end, it won’t be the cellar for DePaul basketball this year. They will probably finish around 8th or 9th in the Big East but after finishing in the cellar for the past two years, this is an improvement.

Robert: DePaul pulls off a big nonconference win or two (Notre Dame and Illinois?) and doesn’t go 0-3 in the PK80, even if it’s just thanks to a win over Portland or Portland State, both of whom are sub-240 KenPom teams. Once Big East play begins, I think they’ll be better than Georgetown and could very easily catch a couple Big East teams napping, resulting in 4 or 5 conference victories and 13 or so total wins.