Time for DePaul to prove it can compete in Big East

Updated: March 6, 2006, 5:40 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The subway, whether it's the El in Chicago or the famous tunnels of New York City, is a fascinating study of human nature for so many reasons, but sadly few of them have much comparative value for the semifinals of the Big East women's tournament. Thankfully, we do have DePaul. And in the first season of the new 16-team Big East, the team from Chicago is the last hope in Hartford, Conn., for former members of Conference USA.

Imagine that point in time when a train pulls into the station at the height of rush hour. On both sides of the door, people stand frozen in anticipation. It's a stillness that stands in stark contrast to the frenetic surroundings, so out of place that it couldn't possibly exist for more than that fraction of time.

Suddenly the doors open and chaos is once again on the move, with two distinct groups of people looking to use the same space to go in any number of directions.

It's the same feeling you get sitting courtside when the referee hands the ball to a team staring down DePaul's full-court pressure. In an instant, like the doors parting, the court is a chaotic clutter of bodies in motion.

And it's little calmer when DePaul has the ball on offense. As if they expect credit for the seconds left on the shot clock, the Blue Demons keep the ball in constant motion, connecting on more passes in 10 seconds than many teams do in a full shot clock.

If the basketball court is the canvas on which some coaches strive for the perfect lines and forms of Rembrandt or Da Vinci, DePaul coach Doug Bruno brings a rare dose of Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock to the party. But whatever your basketball sensibilities, it certainly makes for an entertaining show.

And it's a collection of players every bit as abstract and out of the ordinary as the style of basketball they play. There is slender sharpshooter Allie Quigley, who vanishes into her billowing uniform in a way that reminds you of a kid running underneath the giant parachute in grade school gym class. Or senior Wade Trophy candidate Khara Smith, who has the lower body of an oak tree resting on the nimble feet of a rock climber. And everything in between, from the WNBA body and literary mind of Jenna Rubino to the diminutive form of Claudette Towers and her fondness for Maya Angelou.

If Connecticut and Rutgers look like the product of countless hours in the weight room, DePaul's squad looks like the group of kids that got kicked off the court when the YMCA closed at night. But the gym rats at the local Y couldn't run like this, not for 40 minutes under the bright lights of postseason play.

Against Pittsburgh in the nightcap of Sunday's Big East tournament quarterfinals, DePaul raced out to an early 20-point lead, only to lose control of the frenzy they created and allow the Panthers to hang around and close the deficit to nine points at halftime. The Blue Demons created 13 turnovers in the first half, but they expended a lot of energy and failed to put the nail in the coffin.

The answer? For once, running away from problems worked just fine.

The Blue Demons kept the accelerator floored in the second half and quickly regained control. A Quigley or Rubino 3-pointer here, a Smith post move there and DePaul was up 48-26 after barely more than six minutes. Eyeing a semifinal showdown with Connecticut on Monday, Bruno kept most of his starters planted on the bench and coasted to an easy win.

In part because of their unique style, it's difficult to know exactly where the Blue Demons rank in the college basketball universe. They finished the regular season in third place in the Big East and with an RPI of 14, better than Georgia, Stanford or Michigan State. But aside from a road win at Purdue, they didn't face a nonconference schedule on par with many of the heavyweights and dropped their biggest Big East showdowns against Connecticut and Rutgers.

Their win against Pitt was a perfect example of what happens when they get to control the tempo, but it remains to be seen whether Bruno's crew can execute well enough to beat teams with good enough athletes to match DePaul stride for stride.

Somewhat like last season's West Virginia team on the men's side, which made a surprising run to the Big East final, DePaul might ultimately ride its outside shooting to success or failure. No player with more than 20 attempts from outside the arc shot better than 36 percent in the regular season, but the sheer volume they hoist makes them tough to put away. Against Pitt, three players hit multiple 3-pointers, including four from reserve Caprice Smith.

Not that DePaul is a finesse team. The Blue Demons outrebounded their opponents in the regular season, including beating Rutgers on the boards in a 10-point loss in early February. They also used pressure defense to force opponents into 39 percent shooting and 19 turnovers a game. Of his team's reputation for being more interested in scoring than defending, Bruno says, "People think that we just score. And we like to score, but we like to defend people as well."

But the Blue Demons didn't do it very well in their first meeting with Connecticut, allowing Barbara Turner to score 24 in an 84-75 win for the Huskies. That loss and a subsequent setback against West Virginia in the next game (the Mountaineers' first game without Meg Bulger) might have actually turned the season around, allowing Bruno to get his message about defense across. In the coach's words, "West Virginia whupping us is probably the best thing that happened to us all season."

DePaul will get a chance to prove its coach right on Monday night, facing the Huskies in front of a decidedly partisan crowd at the Hartford Civic Center. And if you think the Blue Demons aren't looking to make a point, think again. It wasn't quite Joe Namath guaranteeing victory for the upstart AFL Jets in Super Bowl III, but when Bruno walked into the media room after the game and saw only a smattering of reporters still hanging around, he said, "Was this room this crowded when UConn got finished?"

The Blue Demons' affiliation with Conference USA is a thing of the past. For an interesting bunch of characters from DePaul, the time is now to prove they belong in the Big East.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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