Cain and Strus Cherish Wintrust Experience
May 31, 2018
Right from the very beginning, it was a season-long joyride of new sights and sounds replete with all the creature comforts and top-shelf amenities helping them realize there’s no place like home.
Let’s just call it the “Wintrust Experience.”
The cherished dream of bringing DePaul Blue Demons basketball back into the city became a reality on Nov. 11, 2017 when a crown jewel of the South Loop opened its doors for the season-opener against Notre Dame.
So many truly dedicated and passionate people encompassing the entire university spectrum, Blue Demon donors and season ticketholders along with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) and the South Loop community contributed so much in terms of time and money and sacrifice towards the construction of Wintrust Arena.
When Cain was recruited three years ago, he saw the renderings and heard the ambitious plans for the state-of-the-art facility. By the time Strus transferred in from Lewis University in April of 2016, the new home for Blue Demon basketball was taking shape.
Neither could imagine the impact of walking into Wintrust Arena for the very first time.
“The first time we went as a team, it was right after they had laid down the court,” Cain said. “We were all going crazy---especially looking at the locker room.
“We play in so many professional teams’ arenas, to me personally, I think ours is just as good as the Milwaukee Bucks’ Bradley Center for Marquette and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Wells Fargo Center for Villanova.”
When the Blue Demons’ inaugural tour reached the locker room, Cain, Strus and their teammates reacted like excited and crazy college kids. Tre’Darius McCallum leaped onto a couch and broke into a spontaneous dance surrounded by the laughter and smiles of his teammates.
“It was surreal,” Cain said. “You look around and see a circular locker room and we each have our own personal space. It really seemed like a professional team’s locker room. The weight room, the showers, everything just seemed brand-new and up-to-date.
“Everybody went crazy when we first walked in---first it was Tre and then Max followed. Everyone got crazy when we first saw it.”
Strus won’t soon forget that day.
“The locker room was awesome,” he said. “As soon as we saw it, everyone was really excited. It was like an NBA locker room, and we had been dreaming about it.
“The first day we were able to go in there was unreal. It was everything we imagined. On recruiting visits, they showed you pictures and everything, but when it actually came to life, it was everything you dreamed about. It was an unbelievable site to see.”
Cain and Strus agreed their best Wintrust moment was the 70-62 victory over rival Marquette in front of a boisterous partisan crowd including a screaming student section.
Strus led the way with 20 points and 11 rebounds while Cain contributed 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
And yet, beyond the stats, there was a greater force at work.
“It was somewhere between the six-minute and three-minute mark in the second half when I had my best Wintrust moment,” Cain said. “It was a tight game. I just remember backpedaling on defense and it felt like a movie. The crowd was so loud. It was just an overall good game and felt so surreal for me.”
Strus gave credit to the team’s collective sixth man.
“I think the fans helped provide the atmosphere for us – it was rocking in there,” Strus said. “Whenever we scored, you knew you’d have fans cheering behind you so that definitely helped us along the way.”
When asked about his best Wintrust game, Cain pointed to the tough one-point loss against St. John’s in which he notched his first career double-double with 19 points and 11 assists.
“I’ve scored 19 points before, but the 11 assists were special to me,” Cain said. “I felt like everything was clicking for me. All my guys were making it easy for me to set screens, and when I was hitting them with passes, they were making their shots.”
Strus had some big-time performances at Wintrust including his 33 points against Northwestern and 27 points against Butler. Were one of those his favorite home game?
“Obviously individual stats don’t matter when you lose, so definitely the Marquette game when we all came together and got a W,” Strus said. “We would like to defend our home court better next season and we’re working on that.”
Both Blue Demons enjoyed the hype leading up to the Wintrust grand-opening showdown with Notre Dame last November. Strus said he had around 200 friends and family members in the packed house that day cheering him on.
“We were so excited to open up against Notre Dame,” Strus said. “It was the most people we had in the arena all year, and it was great to see how much they cared. It was a great atmosphere and an unbelievable experience.”
The Wintrust impact on current Blue Demons and visiting recruits was not lost on Cain and Strus.
“I think it was bigger than just the team and my teammates---it was big for the program,” Cain said. “Having the new arena was like having a new DePaul, in a way. We needed that, DePaul needed that. I think it was bigger than this team.
“When I was recruited by DePaul, Wintrust was in the works when I visited. It was about to break ground and that sold me, honestly. It wasn’t even built!
As a recruit now, that’s something high school kids look at. ‘I want to play in this arena. I want to play in Chicago.’ Having a new arena is big-time.”
Strus reflected on the search for a new school after transferring from Lewis.
“Out of all the visits I went to, it’s one of the nicest gyms out there,” he said. “Having that in downtown Chicago, you really can’t beat it. It’s a great place for the fans to come to on the South Side. It’s perfect.
“Playing in front of family and friends is great, and I love it. That’s why I came here. I only live 45 minutes away, so they can come to every game and I get to see them all the time. I don’t know what I would do without them. I’m lucky to have that support and I’m lucky to be here.”
And DePaul is fortunate to have the incredibly generous support of its donors and season ticketholders.
“You feel like you want to pay them back with some wins and with some success,” Cain said. “They put out all that money and all that time and dedication, so we should give something back to them.”
Strus could not agree more.
“I’m thankful,” he said. “They provided us with a great new home. I’m thankful for it. Now, we just have to do our part, get better and put more wins in there. We just have to be a better program overall.”
How would Eli Cain describe the Wintrust experience with a single word?
“One word, that’s tough,” Cain started out. Then his face brightened and he blurted out: “Exciting! Exciting for the future, really. That’s going to describe DePaul’s program for years to come.”
What about Strus?
“Geez… c’mon now,” Strus started out. “I’ll try and give you a good one.
“I mean, it was ‘fun.’ It was fun to be there. It was fun to play at a new place. It was fun to open it up. Not everything went our way, but every game was fun and we tried to have as much fun as we could as a team.”
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