Anybody walking out of the Allstate Arena in Rosemont Illinois Saturday afternoon knew one thing for sure, there is something different about Depaul. in the past four years, an upset of Kansas notwithstanding, every time a big name team came into Chicago, you knew that a 20 point massacre was on the way. That may not be the case anymore Since the firing of Jerry Wainwright at the beginning of January, the team has been steadily improving under interim coach Tracy Webster.
After two embarrassing losses to St. John's and Villanova, Webster's team appeared to begin playing with pride and a new found confidence which resulted in the program's first win in regular-season Big East play in 25 games against Marquette. The last-second victory has been the brightest spot in the team's improvement over the last month, but isn't the only thing that is showing. On Saturday afternoon, Depaul played fourth-ranked Syracuse and led almost the entire game, before giving up the lead late in the second half, losing when a last-second shot by senior Will Walker didn't go down.
Though the team didn't win, it was the third game in a row that the Blue Demons had at least put up a fight against a superior team. After the exciting victory over Marquette, the team headed to South Bend to face bitter rival Notre Dame. The Demons were competitive throughout only losing by 10. Later that week, Depaul faced off against a West Virginia team that was ranked the top 10. In that game, the Demons cut a big West Virginia lead to four twice, before some questionable officiating took them out of rhythm. While they lost that game by 16 points, their perseverance and tough play really shone through.
On Saturday, the Demons built an 18 point first-half lead, by taking it directly to a well executed Syracuse zone defense. The team appeared to be well prepared for what they would see on the court, and were able to tailor an offense capable of taking advantage of the few weaknesses of the Orange. This is a welcome change for a team that often came out looking very unprepared, and unable to make adjustments during the game under Wainwright. The fact that they lost does not indicate that the demons are a bad team, rather it highlights how much better this team is with the current coaching staff, then it ever was with the old one.
One of the changes that has been most illuminating has to do with the play of junior transfer Mike Stovall. According to an article on ESPNChicago.com, Stovall was recruited to play point guard, but was having trouble embracing that role, because of turnovers. Even though it was obvious that he was struggling at the point, the coaching staff didn't seem to know what to do with him, so he didn't figure much into the lineup. However one of the first things that Tracy Webster and his staff did was switch things up and put Mike out on the wing. they told him to "stop playing like a point guard" and put up more shots. The first game that they did this, against Providence, Stovall scored 30 points. The next week, Stovall hit the game-winning shot against Marquette. He has shown the ability to become the third scorer for a team that badly needs one. Instead of basically having a two-man game between Will Walker and Mac Koshwal, the Demons have a third option, that also happens to be a good shooter. Since making the switch, not only have the Demons looked better, but Stovall has averaged 14 points per game.
Another interesting piece of information that has come out thanks to Mike Stovall has to do with recruiting. According to him he has been talking to top Illinois recruit Wayne Blackshear (verbal commitment to Louisville), and that Wayne is seriously considering coming to Depaul. While this is probably only a rumor, this is how things get started in Chicago, if one player begins to have success by staying home and attending Depaul, other players want to do it to. A player such as Wayne Blackshear, could open up the floodgates to Chicago talent that seem to have been closed since the days of Pat Kennedy.
While this is the most obvious change that has taken place so far, it is fair to say that it seems as though Webster has done more coaching in a month than Jerry Wainwright has done in the past two years. The interesting thing is that the offense the team is running it's not that different than the offense that they ran under Jerry, it just seems to be better executed. The introduction of pick and roll, and drives and kickout plays has added a different dimension to an offense that struggled to score points. But just because a team struggles to score points doesn't mean that you have to grind the game and win ugly. if you play your cards right and you can keep the score low and slow down the gamewithout looking terrible. This is definitely something we have seen over the past month with Webster. The team is still doing essentially the same thing, only they are better at it.Webster has been playing his cards right night in and night out.
While I am not sure if the university should take the risk of hiring a coach with no head coaching experience, the way the team has been improving game by game, Webster would at least have to be part of the discussion. if the team continues to improve over the home stretch of the season, and they win a few more games, the administration should definitely consider either promoting him to head coach, or at least keeping him and the other two assistants on the staff.Time will tell, but it sure does seem that this guy may have what it takes to begin the great turnaround that this program has been looking for. Check back tomorrow for an article about the other available coaches that the university has on their radar screens.