Illinois will take on the DePaul Blue Demons in this year’s Gavitt Games at the State Farm Center on Friday night. Illinois is 12-6 against DePaul with the last matchup coming in 1957.
The DePaul Blue Demons are members of the Big East Conference. DePaul’s main campus is located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on Chicago’s North side. The Blue Demons just opened the Wintrust Arena in the South Loop. The new arena is just 20 minutes on the CTA red line from DePaul’s main campus on Fullerton Avenue and seats over 10,000 people. DePaul is hoping a new arena and improved team in the heart of Chicago will re-energize the program and return them to their glory days.
The Blue Demons had a dominant run in the late 70s and 80s where they reached 14 NCAA tournaments in a 17 year stretch highlighted by the 1979 Final Four. Their best teams were headlined by Mark Aguirre who was the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick in 1981 and went on to win two NBA championships with the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons. DePaul used to have teams full of the best players Chicago high schools had to offer.
Dave Leitao is in his second year of his second head coaching stint at DePaul. He went 58-34 with a Conference USA title and NCAA Round of 32 appearance in his first stint and is 18-55 during his second go-around as the Blue Demons head man.
They also have this guy:
DePaul's Recs Specs walk-on is officially my dude pic.twitter.com/aEynKRYivv— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) November 11, 2017
What They Did Last Year
The Blue Demons went 9-23 last season with a 2-16 record in conference to place them last in the Big East standings. Since joining the Big East in 2005, the Blue Demons have finished in last place six times and have only finished in the top half of the conference once.
DePaul lost in last year’s Gavitt Games to Northwestern by a score of 80-64. The Blue Demons’ best two wins came in conference play when they defeated Providence by one and beat Georgetown by two in D.C.
Key Losses and Additions
The only major departure from last year’s team is 6-foot-6 Morgan Park product Billy Garrett. In his senior year, Garrett averaged 15 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists for the Blue Demons. He was the team’s second leading scorer and best three-point shooter at 36 percent.
The Blue Demons have also added a few immediate impact transfers. Max Strus is a transfer from Division II Lewis University located in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. Strus is a 6-foot-6 bouncy wing with a nice shooting stroke. Strus does not appear to be shy on the court either.
Max Strus is already a legend. He's 1-of-8 from three and just missed a wide open alley-oop dunk with literally no one around him.— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) November 11, 2017
He finished the game 3-12 from beyond the arc, but that percentage may have been a little higher if he still wasn’t trying to take his shots from Romeoville:
Max Strus is 100% going to be my favorite college basketball player this year to watch. LOOK AT THIS. WITH 18 SECONDS ON THE SHOT CLOCK. pic.twitter.com/IImTsmwB91— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) November 13, 2017
This shot by Strus led to the best reaction from Raft in quite some time. Very here for Raft and Strus all year pic.twitter.com/R0PEBUxhco— BarstoolReags (@BarstoolReags) November 13, 2017
And oh yeah, here’s that missed alley-oop dunk mentioned above:
Oh no... #SCNotTop10 pic.twitter.com/f7QXfjL1Oh— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 11, 2017
Strus had some entertaining moments in his first Division 1 game, but he clearly has the talent and confidence to be a major player for DePaul this season and will be near the top of the scouting report for the Illini.
DePaul has also added Marin Maric, a graduate transfer from NIU. Maric is just shy of seven feet tall and averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds per game for NIU last season. Maric started at center for DePaul against Notre Dame and had some struggles in his first game. It will be interesting to see how the Illini handle Maric’s size advantage in the post on Friday.
Ex-Illini guard Jalen Coleman-Lands is also a part of the DePaul basketball program. He trasffered from Illinois to DePaul at the end of last season and must sit out this year so he will not be eligible for Friday’s game.
This DePaul team is fairly balanced and any one of their starters could carry them on every given night. However, DePaul’s star watch goes to Eli Cain. Not only is he the Blue Demons leading scorer from last year, but Cain is the most impressive and versatile player on the roster. Cain stands at 6-foot-6 and can handle, drive, pass , rebound and finish around the rim. The junior wing is DePaul’s best option when a play breaks down. There were multiple occasions in DePaul’s opener against Notre Dame where Cain drove from the top of the key and finished around the rim. Every time the drive was under control and the finish was smooth. Nothing from Cain was rushed or forced. He has an impressive feel for the game and an ability to make plays for himself and his teammates.
This is Illinois’ first true test of the year. They struggled late against UT-Martin, but DePaul has high major athletes and size at every position. DePaul has only won 5 conference the past two years but they look to be a much improved team from a year ago. I expect DePaul’s length at all five positions to pose challenges to Illinois on offense and on the glass.
Illinois will have the advantage of playing this game at the State Farm Center and I think they will be able to just enough to pull out a close win. Underwood’s squad should have continued success at getting to the free throw line and taking advantage of miscues on both sides of the ball by a young DePaul squad. Illinois 74, DePaul 67.