I’m not gonna lie to you, while watching the first half of Saturday afternoon’s DePaul-Loyola game, I was teeing up an emphatically negative examination of DePaul basketball leading up to the present day.
Name any statistical category from the game, and DePaul was losing it in the first half against its most notable, coveted rival just up the CTA Red Line. The Blue Demons lost the first half by 13 points.
The Ramblers were shooting the lights out, rebounding the ball and constantly finding the open man. I admit, I was fascinated with Marquise Kennedy, and Tom Welch’s ability to get open looks in the paint.
Nevertheless, the Blue Demons fought back valiantly. Give credit to coach Tony Stubblefield. His halftime adjustments and implementation of full-court pressure led to some serious lockdown defense in Act II.
Alas, it wasn’t until overtime that the Blue Demons won me over, but let’s save that discussion for the end, and first, dive into some separate, yet imperative, Blue Demon basketball subjects.
It’s been quite the beginning for the Blue Demons, on a multitude of heart-shattering levels.
Personnel-wise, I’m not even quite sure where to being.
I read over my last column back in the summer on the Blue Demons – before writing this one – and completely forgot about the 6-foot-10 Australian Tafara Gapare, who planned to not only attend DePaul, but reclass into this season.
It didn’t take long for him to de-commit from the program unexpectedly. The season there took two steps backward before it had the chance to take any forward.
Then, the Tyon Grant-Foster situation. Need I elaborate on his absence’s effect on the team?
Now, the Blue Demons have injuries on the current roster. Caleb Murphy has yet to play (right wrist) – yet has received ceaseless hype about his potential –Yor Anei has missed time (foot) and it was announced starting center Nick Ongenda would require wrist surgery hours before the Loyola game.
Let’s not forget Stubblefield diminished Ahamad Bynum’s role. That doesn’t help.
Stubblefield rolled out an eight-man rotation against the Ramblers. He went with Javan Johnson, Earl Penn, Jalen Terry, Philmon Gebrewhit and Umoja Gibson while bringing Dae’Sean Nelson, Zion Cruz and K.T. Raimey off the bench.
We’ll see if this “junior college situation,” as Stubblefield characterized it in the summer, sustains the Blue Demons going forward. He mentioned then “we’re going to have eight, nine, maybe 10 new players year-in and year-out.”
Joseph J. Gentile Arena
DePaul Athletics could learn something from their northern neighbors.
The energy in Loyola’s stadium was palpable through my television screen in the suburbs.
An entire student section spanning across three columns of bleachers with fans garnished in maroon and gold scarves who brought unwavering energy throughout the arena. That’s a college basketball atmosphere.
The Blue Demons need something adjacent to this.
I say this with a full understanding of a few things – 1) Wintrust Arena is over twice as large as JG Arena. 2) It’s farther from their respective campus. 3) Loyola basketball has seen a vast amount of success recently compared to DePaul.
But, man, does the setting make a difference. Even though DePaul overcame the energy with a win over the Ramblers, it’s still tangible to success.
Ongenda told me before the beginning of last season how paramount fan support plays into their performance. So, take it from the man himself.
“As long as our fans pull up, that would be great,” Ongenda said in September 2021. “Fan support can really switch the mindset and can turn a ten-point game into a five-point game.”
This is an active issue that athletic director DeWayne Peevy is attacking. But first, let me tip my cap to the captain of the ship. Peevy’s transparency and energy as the AD are not only contagious, but wildly encouraging. And, his axe throwing is artistry.
Now that I’ve softened the blow for my next point, let me address one fatal mishap in the master plan to attract more fans to the corner of Indiana and Cermak road.
Putting Bino Ranson and Doug Bruno on the corner of Belden and Sheffield with a box of doughnuts and cookies isn’t going to bring students to Chinatown to watch a perennial bottom-tier Big East team.
So please, for the sake of embarrassment and wasted time, let’s stick to traditional tactics and work insufferably to improve the likes of the team. Because that’s what’s gonna drive spectators to Wintrust Arena.
(All jokes here. Miss you guys.)
Let’s get back to the game.
I’d be remiss not to highlight the three players that stepped up, not only to give this team the win but who have been lynchpins to this group all season.
First, Penn is the ball of energy any successful team requires. He plays physically, blocks shots and screams in the face of anybody he dunks on. He was a major factor in this one.
Gibson is the savvy, crafty, intuitive point guard this team needs to run its offense and be a catalyst for putting points on the board. By my calculation, Gibson fouled once, turned the ball over twice and made just one field goal in OT. Yet, he made all six free throw attempts down the stretch to put this game away. His clutch factor and venerability are extremely vital.
Johnson is “that guy” this season. Seriously, the once Troy and Iowa State transfer scored 10 points in overtime and helped the Blue Demons make an unprecedented 100 percent of their shots from the field.
Last season, he had one indelible game against UConn, when he dropped 18 points against a conference opponent. This season, he’s averaging 18.4 points per game, and put up 27 in the win over Loyola on 10-of-18 shooting.
Let me underline Johnson more. He took some seriously risky shots in this game – multiple of which could have cost DePaul critical possessions down the stretch. In turn, his unwavering confidence to shoot the ball paid off big time.
For this, I’m not only impressed, but I’m also enthralled to see where the rest of this season goes. DePaul is 5-3, and usually better during their non-conference schedule. But, a win like Saturday’s over Loyola should elevate their confidence to a whole new level.
A perfect segway into the last point.
DePaul @ St. John’s – Wednesday
It was a dagger to Lincoln Park’s heart last season to learn of Javon Freeman-Liberty’s inevitable departure from DePaul to attempt the culmination of creating his NBA dreams.
(Side note: He did so semi-successfully, signing a training camp deal with the Chicago Bulls this past summer and currently playing for the Windy City Bulls. Max Strus route … anyone?)
But, David Jones twisted the knife when he announced his entry in the transfer portal, and then thrust it back in by telling the world he would be heading to conference opponent St. John’s.
Wednesday’s upcoming game against the Red Storm poses a major turning point. Why they decided to play each other technically before conference games begin? I have no idea. It poses an opportunity, nonetheless.
Jones is leading the team this season alongside the likes of Joel Soriano – a 6-foot-11, 260-pound veteran behemoth – and Andre Curbello – the former Illinois star who transferred this season.
The Blue Demons have a chance to make this year even more entertaining, even more electric, and potentially historic. The Red Storm eliminated the Blue Demons last season in the Big East tournament to the tune of a 19-point rout at Madison Square Garden.
DePaul won their last regular season contest against St. John’s at Wintrust Arena on the backs of Freeman-Liberty (39 points) and Jones (24 points). It’s time to do it over again and seek vengeance.
Yes, St. John’s is technically 8-1 and has received a vote to appear in the top 25 as of last week, but they haven’t played any juggernauts yet.
I’m not saying it’s likely DePaul could contend for a win. All I’m saying is DePaul has just as much reason to win this game as the Red Storm. Stay tuned. Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. CST.
P.S. – On a personal note
If you’re not interested in an update from me, click off the story, and thanks for reading my rant on DePaul basketball.
Well Blue Demon family, if you’ve followed me and any of my work on DePaul athletics with the DePaulia (you’d be a maverick for that), and for some reason realized I haven’t written in a while, I have the explanation.
My tidings currently reside with NBC Sports Chicago as a writer with our inspiring, decorated, renowned sports team. I can’t say enough about their impact on my professional endeavors.
I’ve written a plethora of stories to be proud of and I’m excited about the journey. I plan to stick around for a while. If you would be inclined, not only can you follow my work at nbcsportschicago.com, but you can follow my Twitter page @rytay_ to follow along.
(No, I don’t subscribe to Twitter Blue. The predecessor to Elon Musk donned me an official checkmark.)
I’ve been all over the place, but mainly have written on the Bears beat along with the White Sox.
I appreciate those who’ve supported and commented on my work and am grateful for those who will join me in the future. Talk soon DePaul family.