When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, UConn athletics will be back where they belong in the Big East. Of course, this Big East isn’t exactly the same as when the Huskies were last members, so we caught up with writers who cover schools in the new Big East to get the lowdown on how things are going.
For this edition, Vijay Vemu, the DePaul writer for Big East Coast Bias, took some time to answer some questions on the new conference and the Blue Demons.
Note: these questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.
What have the last seven years been like without UConn in the Big East?
There has been a lot of change since UConn was last year. New teams have arrived in Creighton and Butler, while a chunk of the older teams are still here in Villanova, Providence, St. John’s and Georgetown. The conference has seen a lot of success basketball wise. Villanova won two titles and there have been a lot of other teams ranked in the top 10 of the polls. Overall the conference has been competitive despite Nova and Xavier mostly being at the top. You never know what’s going to happen on any given night when it comes to Big East basketball.
What was your fanbase’s reaction to the news that UConn was rejoining the Big East?
It’s certainly been different without the Huskies and I feel confident to say that a lot of Big East fans have missed UConn being in the conference. There have been so many great memories of the Huskies while in the Big East. My personal favorite was their run with Kemba Walker in the conference and NCAA tournament. Although it’s been a while since they played DePaul, it’s always nice to see one of the older members come back to join the Big East. The reaction from the fanbase has been as such, appreciation for an old friend returning.
Aside from renewing old rivalries, one of the biggest perks of the Big East is an easier travel schedule for both teams and fans. Assuming it’s safe to travel come college basketball season, what do Huskies fans need to know about your arena(s)? Any restaurants/bars/destinations you recommend?
So there has been a big upgrade in home court for DePaul as they have their games at Wintrust Arena. Gone are the days where they would have to play in Allstate Arena, which was a bit of a ride north of Chicago and it was a hassle for students to get to the games as well. Now they have an arena in the city and it’s in a location which is easier to reach if you are staying in town.
Wintrust Arena is super new as it opened up just three years ago. DePaul shares this home with the Chicago Sky, so this arena has a lot of seating. Wintrust also hosted media days and practices for the NBA All-Star weekend. It’s convenient for both DePaul alumni and students along with visiting fans. There is a Marriott literally across from the arena so if you are an away fan, you don’t have to go far to watch the game. In terms of restaurants, I would recommend checking out Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta. If you are looking to grab a beer before or after the game, I would recommend Fatpour Tap Works. They have a location near the arena with a good food menu too.
In terms of tourist destinations, there are the usual places such as the Bean, Willis Tower, and the variety of museums.
UConn and DePaul squared off plenty of times during the old Big East days. Is there one game from the first go around that sticks out for you?
Well it’s certainly been a while since DePaul has beaten UConn given they are 1-10 against the Huskies since 1950. Some of these most recent losses haven’t even been close for the Blue Demons but there’s one game which sticks out to me, I would go with their matchup from 2007 when DePaul beat UConn at home, 66-58. They held Hasheem Thabeet to just four points while Draeleon Burns scored 26 and Wilson Chandler dropped 14.
Not necessarily Big East related, but something I always wanted to know. DePaul is a catholic school. Why is the nickname the Blue Demons? Seems counterintuitive, no?
Honestly, at first I had no idea why the nickname for DePaul was the Blue Demons. It was always something I just accepted and didn’t look into further. But upon some research I believe to have found an answer of some sorts. In the olden days, DePaul were nicknamed the “D-men” because they wore that letter on their jerseys when they played. It doesn’t seem like the nickname even came from the school itself, it was just something which caught on. Also apparently the blue part was so people could tell them apart from a former school with the same name as them. Here is a link to a story by the school which kind of explains the origins.
Which teams would you consider as DePaul’s biggest rivals in the Big East?
Although DePaul seems to have bigger rivalries with more of its in-state neighbors such as University of Illinois, Northwestern, or University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) more than their Big East compatriots, there is one university which sticks out — Marquette. They have played DePaul 117 times since the 1950’s, more than any other current Big East team. It’s a rivalry steeped in history so my answer would be Marquette despite them having a huge lead in the all-time head to head record.
Head coach Dave Leitao is a friend of the program, playing for Jim Calhoun at Northeastern and spending more than a decade as an assistant at UConn in two stints. Now, he’s inked an extension that makes him the head coach through 2023-24 despite finishing over .500 just once, and not making an NCAA tournament in his second stint at DePaul. Are Blue Devils fans happy with this decision?
Simply put, they weren’t exactly happy about it. It’s been a long time since DePaul has made the tournament and as you said, finishing over .500 isn’t a consistent thing. This can be a frustrating thing for any fanbase, especially for the Blue Demons.
I think when Leitao came back for his second stint as head coach, there was a collective sense that there would be a rebuild within the program. There would be losing seasons as DePaul worked to build up a team which was at least competitive in the Big East. This past two seasons we saw signs of that. After winning 18 games combined in his first two seasons, Leitao won 19 games with DePaul in 2018-19 along with a CBI title game appearance. This season started off great but they fell apart in January. I think Leitao has done an okay job getting DePaul back to winning at least double digit win totals but there needs to be more consistency from the program. They need to build on their good starts in non-conference play and that 2018-19 would have been a solid beginning point. But it didn’t exactly happen. An extension seemed a bit ill-timed given it came while they were slipping.
Speaking of Leitao, he was suspended the first three games of this past season for a recruiting violation, but the team still managed to win their first nine games against a decent non-conference slate. They entered Big East play at 12-1, but went 3-15 in conference play. What caused the wheels to fall off?
DePaul showed they had the potential to knock off top tier opponents. We saw that in their wins against Iowa, Minnesota, and their win Texas Tech in overtime. Even in conference play, they were able to upset a top five team in Butler. The talent was there with this program. But in most of their games in January and beyond, the offense started to falter in crucial stretches. DePaul was in a lot of their conference games but when it came to crunch time, it seemed like a lid was stuck on the hoop. Baskets weren’t coming easy to them and the ball movement faded away. Guys started forcing things and taking bad shots. All it would take is a couple of baskets on the other side and you could feel the snowball effect coming. In most of their losses, there was a key run in the second half which took them out of it.
DePaul might lose big man Paul Reed to the NBA, but bring back a prolific scorer in guard Charlie Moore, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.1 assists a game last year. Assuming Reed might be gone, who do you expect to step up and help Moore with the scoring load?
Yeah there is going to be a hole in the offense left by not only Reed (who I believe can be an NBA draft pick) but by Jalen Coleman-Lands as well as he departed for Iowa State. Now the Blue Demons have lost two of their top four scorers. Jaylen Butz was a good counterpart to Reed and cleaned up well on the glass. He needs to refine his inside scoring touch but there is no reason why he can’t be averaging double digits next season. Romeo Weems has shown some nice promise and should be in line to make a leap in his offensive production after averaging eight points per game last season.
DePaul has three transfers coming in as well including Ray Salnave, who was a scorer at Monmouth last year. Even though Moore will surely be the leader along with the return of Butz and Weems, there will still be some new faces. Hopefully the additions can add some more pop as well. But if I had to choose one specific candidate to help out Moore, it would be Weems.