Blue-Collar DePaul Ready to Punch in for Season Opener
CHICAGO - Maybe the Blue Demons should show up in yellow hard hats for Tuesday night's home opener against Columbia at Allstate Arena.
There's a big-time construction project underway to rebuild DePaul's basketball program into the kind of national power that racked up 14 20-win seasons in 18 years from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.
Restoring the luster won't be easy, especially after last year's 9-24 season. And until a savvy crew of new assistant coaches can bring in NBA-talent recruits such as Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings, the Blue Demons are hoping a down-and-dirty approach will stave off their more-talented adversaries in the BIG EAST.
"We have to be a blue-collar, go-to-work team," said DePaul basketball coach Jerry Wainwright. "We have no margin of error because we're too young to out-talent anybody. We can never take a possession off.
"That kind of an attitude builds a foundation for consistent winning. It will make our fans and everyone else respect us. It will get our fans excited about cheering for us.
"That's what this city is all about, and what this program should be about. We've got to be an unselfish, blue-collar team."
Wainwright recalls how this city embraced a fledgling pro basketball franchise in the early 1970s whose success emanated from the all-out hustle and defensive intensity embodied by a couple of blue-collar guards named Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier.
The Blue Demons coach knows exactly what led to the worst season since DePaul went 9-19 in 2001-02.
"The most glaring discrepancies were rebounding and free throws," Wainwright said. "Rebounding in our league is all about physical toughness, and we didn't have the physical maturity to compete in the lane. There was an exceptional group of big men in the BIG EAST last year---the best group in the country---and we got punished on the glass.
"As for free throws, we were just about the worst (15th) in the BIG EAST. We were giving away eight-to-10 points a game. Free throws can stop runs, and we weren't making ours. That became a recognizable weakness, and it became a good percentage for other teams to foul us.
"Both are correctable, and not correcting them is inexcusable."
The return of 6-foot, 10-inch junior Mac Koshwal (12.2 points, 9.6 rebounds a game) will help on the boards. Koshwal, who tested the NBA draft waters before returning to DePaul, had 15 games of double-figure rebounds---including a career-high 22 against Creighton. Wainwright is also counting on improved inside play from 6-11 sophomore Krys Faber and 7-2 sophomore Kene Obi.
In addition, 6-6 Ohio State transfer Eric Wallace could be an impact performer on the boards.
"Wallace had to sit out last season and is getting over some rustiness," Wainwright said. "But I expect him to be competitive on the glass on every possession. He is as gifted an athlete as there is in our league"
Working diligently in the preseason to improve their free-throw accuracy are Koshwal (57.5 percent last season), Jeremiah Kelly (52.9 percent), Faber (42.3 percent) and 6-9 Devin Hill (27.3 percent).
Whether shooting standstill from 15 feet, on the move or from beyond the three-point arc, senior guard Will Walker usually had the hot hand.
Walker was on fire the final five games last season, averaging 24.8 points a game. During the 2008-09 campaign, Walker hit seven three-pointers against West Virginia and six threes against Villanova while averaging 14.6 points with 72 three-pointers and 55 steals.
"Will Walker is without question our go-to guy," Wainwright said. "I was running plays for him when he was a freshman. He is always a great option because he's a terrific free-throw shooter.
"What Will has to learn is that two of Michael Jordan's greatest plays were passes---to John Paxson and Steve Kerr. Will can create some things off the pass for other guys. But they have to follow through with a basket.
"You shouldn't need anyone to score 30 points in a game (Walker did it twice last season). Ideally, I'd like Will to average 18 points and four or five assists. Those assists mean other guys are making shots off his passes. One of those guys could be Mario Stula, who is emerging as a potential impact player."
Walker could find himself being guarded Tuesday night by an old acquaintance, ex-Glenbrook South star Kevin Bulger---one of the Ivy League's top defenders.
Columbia opens the season with another defensive-oriented ballclub which held opponents to an average of 62 points and 41 percent shooting last season while going 12-16.
Along with Bulger, the Lions feature guards Patrick Foley, Niko Scott and Noruwa Agho. Scott is their long-distance specialist, converting on more than 42 percent of his three-pointers last season.
"You never want the kids to forget about last season, and it's going to leave a scar," Wainwright said. "But I don't want scar tissue.
"It was really evident that we weren't good enough from our No. 6 to No. 9 players. A lot of BIG EAST coaches thought we were among the best 32-minute teams in the league, but we would just wear out.
"This season we have Wallace, an improving Jeremiah Kelly and Mike Stovall, who is a good athlete and an experienced player who played at Oregon State and Mineral Area junior college in Missouri. Wallace and (the 6-5) Stovall give us good size at their positions and have to be impact players for us."