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For DePaul Blue Demons, It’s All About Defense

Mark Kuhlmann/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

It is no secret that DePaul has struggled in its time in the Big East. With a 36-140 record in its 10 years in the Big East, you could be forgiven if you did not know that DePaul made some modicum of progress last season.

After six years of last-place finishes, the Blue Demons finished in a tie for seventh place last season with a 6-12 conference record. Granted that doesn’t seem like a lot, but it was the most conference wins for DePaul since the 2007-2008 season. And DePaul did that with once again possessing one of the worst defenses in America.

If you need reminding, the Demons ranked last in the Big East in scoring defense (73.6 points per game), scoring margin (-4.2), field-goal percentage defense (.460 percent shooting allowed), rebounding offense (30.3 rebounds per game), rebounding margin (-5.5) and finished eighth in rebounding defense (35.8 rebounds allowed per game).

With numbers like that, DePaul felt the need to move on from Oliver Purnell and hire its one-time former coach Dave Leitao. After all, the last time the Demons enjoyed true success was in the time Leitao was coach. Leitao went 58-34 in his three seasons with the Blue Demons and took to them to their last NCAA Tournament (2004), as well as two NIT appearances.

Leitao is known for his hard stance on the defensive side of the ball, as his teams (even when was coach at Virginia) always guarded you well, rebounded effectively and never quit. It’s something he is trying to instill with his new batch of Blue Demons. As the team gets adjusted to his style, they are getting better with each practice.

It’s something he talked about while at Big East media day, where the Demons were picked to finish eighth in the conference in the 2015-16 season.

“The first time I put a whistle around my neck in April, those were the first words (defense) out of my mouth,” Leitao said about improving DePaul’s inefficiencies on the defensive side of the ball. “It’s something we talked about every time we’ve gotten together. We have to create that mindset. I understand it’s not going to (happen) overnight. It’s going to take some time. It’s going to be filled with some times where I think we’ve made a lot of progress, and there’s going to be times where it’s going to look like we haven’t made any progress.

“At the same point in time,” Leitao added. “I think if you talk to anybody around our program they’ll mention that word (progress) and it’s something that we deem critically important to our success.”

As DePaul’s players get to know Leitao and his staff, which also includes Rick Carter (who was an assistant at Xavier last season), Patrick Sellers (a UConn coaching disciple like Leitao) and Bryan Tibaldi, they know defense has to come first if DePaul is to have success.

Team leader Billy Garrett Jr. (whose father is also on Leitao’s staff), knows that for DePaul to take the next step and break through, a commitment to defense has to be made. It was something he backed up while at media day, too.

“The intensity of practice everyday, the work, the consistency,” Garrett said about what is different from years past. “Defensively, I think we have grown a lot as a team. Coach Leitao has done an amazing job, (as has) coach Carter and our whole coaching staff. I think they have made biggest difference so far in our team and you can see it in practice.”

Garrett, who was named preseason all-Big East second team after averaging 12.3 points and 3.9 assists per game (both tops on the team) last season, is certainly somebody the team looks up to. Also bringing some veteran leadership to the table is senior combo forward Myke Henry.

Henry is coming off a season in which he was second on the team in scoring (12 ppg) while first in rebounding (5.4 rpg). He too, knows the value of defense this season.

“Absolutely,” Henry said about defense being the main focus this season “It’s like a 180 with the coaching change. Coach Leitao, he’s teaching us toughness. He’s teaching us how to play hard and what it means to work hard. If you work hard, you get what you want.”

Rebuilding has been tough for DePaul under Purnell and Leitao’s immediate successor Jerry Wainwright. Leitao may need some time to implement his style and system, but there is hope that DePaul can have an immediate turnaround. Remember, Leitao took over a 9-19 team in 2002 and led DePaul to a 16-13 record and an appearance in the NIT in his first year on the job.

“It’s my hope,” Leiato said about an immediate improvement. “Do we want to be better? Absolutely. Are we going to be better? I’m pretty sure we will be. How much better? It’s (about) the commitment they make to each other (and) how much they believe and trust in one other. And how committed they become day-to-day on the process of being better (is crucial).”

DePaul has talent and some skilled scorers, but it’s all about how much commitment they put on defense that will ultimately define how this season plays out for the Demons.

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