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PREVIEW: Ascendant DePaul travels to UConn

Can the Blue Demons build on their three-game win streak and knock off fourth-place UConn?

 DePaul Blue Demons forward David Jones (32) drives on Creighton Bluejays guard Alex O’Connell (5)
 DePaul Blue Demons forward David Jones (32) drives on Creighton Bluejays guard Alex O’Connell (5)
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

TV, Times, and Lines:

TV: FOX

Date: Saturday, March 5th

Time: 5:00 p.m. EST

KenPom Spread: UConn -9

Total: O/U 141


The DePaul Blue Demons (15-14, 6-13) find themselves in unfamiliar territory—competitive in Big East play. Their six conference wins are more than the previous two seasons combined, and they have now strung together three straight Big East wins for the first time since the 2014-15 season. For the first time in a long long time, DePaul is trending in the right direction.

But it won’t be easy for the Blue Demons to build on their win-streak, as they travel to the fourth-place UConn Huskies (21-8, 12-6). Despite their recent stumble on the road at Creighton, UConn has still won five of their last six games, and remains one of the Big East’s best chances to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies are behind only Villanova in KenPom’s rankings and are top-33 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Much of UConn’s success can be attributed to star point guard RJ Cole. Cole has been excellent all season for the Huskies—ranking top 10 in the Big East in offensive rating & assist rate, and top-20 in true shooting percentage & turnover rate. It’s not just RJ Cole that makes me so high on UConn; they have great talent across the entire roster, and enough depth to emerge from the Big East gauntlet relatively healthy.

DePaul, however, has not been so fortunate with their health. Their two stars—David Jones and Javon Freeman-Liberty—have both missed multiple games in the Big East. And that’s not to mention Javan Johnson, who was one of their leading scorers but has only played 11 games this year. Things got so dire for the Blue Demons that they were playing with only six scholarship players for multiple games in the thick of the Big East schedule.

But Freeman-Liberty and David Jones have finally returned to the lineup for the past two games, and it's no coincidence that these have been the most impressive games of DePaul’s entire schedule. I’ve made the point before that David Jones is the X-factor for this DePaul team who elevates everyone on the court when he is in the lineup. Freeman-Liberty becomes far-and-away the top scoring option without Jones playing, and without a legitimate second option, defenses have no trouble stopping DePaul.

This is my hypothesis, at least, but do the numbers back me up? Let’s take a look.

Freeman-Liberty returned to DePaul after a seven-game absence for the 2/15 game vs. Butler, in which Jones played. However, Jones himself would injure his ankle the next game and miss the following three before returning in the 2/27 win vs. St. John’s.

During the three-game span that Jones was injured, Freeman-Liberty averaged an 87 offensive rating and shot a measly 19-65 (29.2% FG), along with an assist/turnover rate of 0.89. In the three games Jones has played, JFL’s efficiency has seen a stark improvement. He’s averaged a 136 offensive rating, shot 26-49 (53.0% FG), and improved his assist/turnover rate to 1.67. Oh, and he scored a career-high 39 points in one of those games.

Obviously, this is a small sample size, as there is only one other game David Jones hasn’t played in (it’s worth noting this was another bad game for JFL). But the data we do have back up my claim, and it’s clear as day to anyone that follows DePaul basketball that Jones is the glue that holds this team together.

This is a big game for both teams. Beyond just maintaining momentum into the postseason, there are seeding implications at play. With a win, DePaul can jump ahead of Butler into the 9th slot (assuming Villanova beats Butler). This is important because it means they would not only get an easier Big East tournament first-round draw, but they’ll also avoid playing the 2-seed Villanova in the second round. They would get Providence instead, who DePaul already took to OT without Freeman-Liberty.

UConn, on the other hand, is still in play for the No. 3 seed in the Big East Tournament (they’d need Creighton to lose vs. Seton Hall). Additionally, taking a loss to DePaul would do significant damage to their stout NCAA Tournament resume, possibly dropping them from their projected 5-seed line.

Prediction:

Now that DePaul is relatively healthy, do they have a chance at knocking off a very good UConn team in their house? Frankly, I think it’s unlikely, but I will say they have a better chance than most might assume, and certainly better than the 15% chance that KenPom gives the Blue Demons. This game should be relatively close, but UConn’s talent and experience should win out in the end.

UConn wins, 78-75