Blue Demons think late-season surge will carry over

Originally Published: October 30, 2006
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- DePaul would have been one of the toughest outs in last season's Big East Tournament and legitimately could have won the event.

Don't laugh. Just look at the facts.

DePaul smoked eventual tournament champ Syracuse by 39 points at home a week before 12 of the league's 16 teams converged at Madison Square Garden.

A week before the Syracuse rout, the Blue Demons beat eventual NCAA team Seton Hall by three. DePaul also beat NCAA teams Cal and UAB as well as NIT teams Creighton and Notre Dame, in addition to a win at Wake Forest, which at the time, in early December, didn't look like the worst team in the ACC.

The problem was that the Blue Demons were terribly inconsistent, like following up the Wake Forest win with a 44-point loss at Old Dominion and winning only one game in the month of January. So, it's understandable how DePaul finished 12-15 and 5-11 in the Big East in Jerry Wainwright's first season in Chicago.

To sleep on this team heading into this season, though, would be a major mistake. DePaul has the look, the feel and the overall confidence to go from not making the Big East tournament one season to being a potential multiple-win team in the NCAA Tournament the next.

Sammy Mejia
Joe Robbins/US PresswireSammy Mejia will key DePaul's perimeter attack.

"I'm not going to lie to you -- it was devastating not doing anything, not even having a second chance," Wainwright said of not qualifying for the Big East tournament after losing by five at Notre Dame in the final regular-season game.

"We played well the last four weeks to show we belonged," he added during Big East media day last Wednesday in New York.

"It was a heartbreaker," said senior guard Sammy Mejia, who is from New York and desperately wanted to play back home. "Once it starts, you forget about the teams that didn't make it."

That's why it would be easy to discount the Blue Demons, but four of their five starters return from the team that was surging at season's end. Returning talent doesn't always mean a step up; in this case, it does.

DePaul was going through a classic adjustment period from former coach Dave Leitao to Wainwright. Not having Wesley Green for 11 games also was a legitimate excuse. While he was out with a broken foot, the Blue Demons struggled with their post depth.

Now Green is back and so are Marcus Heard, who Wainwright said could be the team's sleeper due to his improvement over the offseason, and Wilson Chandler. The big key will be whether the Blue Demons ever get Keith Butler back on the roster. Butler has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules and isn't practicing. The 7-foot-1 senior transfer from Temple could be a game changer if he can get his act in order.

"He's a major loss, but he is capable of coming back," Wainwright said. "I don't have any credibility if I don't have it with the faculty. If he comes back, it would be an infusion. It would help us."

Let's not kid ourselves, though. Despite all the talk about the post play, the Blue Demons will go as far as their guards take them. Mejia, who averaged 15.1 points a game, is a legit major talent. Adding Draelon Burns (11.6 ppg) and wings Karron Clarke (10 ppg) and Jabari Currie (5.1 ppg) makes the Blue Demons a bigger version of Villanova from a year ago.

That's not to compare the Blue Demons' talent to 'Nova's Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi, but Wainwright sees this group as playing "small ball that is bigger."

"For us small ball is 6-5, 6-8," Wainwright said.

The Blue Demons do have to shoot better than 31.5 percent on 3s, but they're capable of doing that this season.

"We just want to pick it up where we left off," Mejia said. "We're more mature and we're minimizing mistakes. Some say we're not as big as the other teams in the conference, but while we have to guard their height, they have to guard our speed. There are going to be matchup problems, but we believe in our game plan."

There now is a trust among players and coaches that took a bit of time to develop a year ago, despite Wainwright's track record. He has been a winner everywhere he's been, with NCAA berths at UNC Wilmington (two) and Richmond (one). Now, expecting one in year two at DePaul isn't a reach, especially when you look at the Blue Demons' nonconference schedule.

It's not unrealistic to think DePaul could compete for the Maui Invitational title. The Blue Demons have the talent to topple Kentucky in the opener before a likely meeting with UCLA (after a win over Chaminade) in the semis. If they could beat the Bruins, the final could be against Georgia Tech, Memphis, Purdue or Oklahoma (likely one of the first two). Even if the Blue Demons go 2-1 in Maui after losing the first game, the third game (and second win) likely would be against a possible postseason team.

The Maui trip comes after DePaul opens on the road at Bradley and Northwestern, and the first game back after that tournament is on Dec. 2 at the Allstate Arena -- against Kansas. Games at UAB and Rhode Island and home games against Wake Forest, Cal and even UC Irvine and Northwestern State will all be competitive (also at home is Chicago State in a guarantee game).

You shouldn't even be surprised to see DePaul take out Big East conference favorite Pitt at home on Jan. 10, the only meeting the two teams have this season.

"You're not tricking anybody in Chicago," Wainwright said. "They're not coming to your games if you're playing Little Sisters of the Poor. How can I talk to the team about beating Connecticut if we're going to be afraid to play Kansas? Everybody says, 'What if you lose games like that?' I say, 'What if you win?

"I've been a mid-major guy my whole life and any chance we have to play a good school I will," he added. "There's no question it has affected recruiting because of who we're playing. I'm sensitive to what the basketball media says. In your eyes and the NCAA they say play the best schedule you can."

That's what DePaul is doing, and if the Blue Demons win a few and compete the way they should in the Big East, we'll all be talking about Wainwright and the Blue Demons come March.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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