One of the pleasures of college athletics is the rapid development of teams and players. Certainly, all sports feature young players finding their way, but because all college players are young their development is much more noticeable. That’s why March Madness has such a hold on college basketball aficionados; players who seemed tentative in the fall may have matured into confident, assertive stars by the end of the season, and ragtag teams may have cohered into smooth-functioning units. March is a time to showcase continued development and sudden unity.
In short, college basketball is not supposed to be as difficult and as unpleasant as the DePaul Blue Demons have made it seem this year. A season that began at the end of November with legitimate high hopes has ended in disappointment, even as DePaul completed its regular season and Conference USA tournament at 21-11 and made the NCAA tournament, aka “the Big Dance,” that begins this week. DePaul is an immensely talented team, and it may be better next year–that depends on whether Quentin Richardson returns or goes pro–but what’s been frustrating to anyone watching the Blue Demons is the lack of progress from November to March and from last year to this.
Perhaps it was rash of me to have written in November that this was a potential Final Four team. As I acknowledged then, everything would have had to break the Demons’ way for them to reach that level. What’s disconcerting about DePaul is how few breaks they got, and how even normal development was curtailed. Going into the NCAAs, DePaul is a team in which the parts are better than the whole, and that’s not how college basketball is supposed to work.
Like most of his teammates, sophomore forward Bobby Simmons performed erratically, having good games and bad games, yet might have established himself anyway as the most consistent DePaul player; that’s how bad things were. Simmons remained a fixture under the boards–rebounding was the one DePaul strength throughout the year–and he developed at handling the ball. Then again, with sophomore point guard Rashon Burno committing a team-high 80 turnovers during the 29-game regular season–sloppiness was DePaul’s most persistent weakness–anyone who could handle the ball was expected to, and Simmons had 78 turnovers of his own. Also, Simmons’s normally reliable foul shooting had a tendency to disappear at the most inopportune moments, but that was a general failing of the team. Sophomore center-forward Lance Williams suffered a broken foot before the season began, and his recovery was slow. It wasn’t until the Demons’ second meeting with Cincinnati, the best team in Conference USA, that Williams looked his old self, bouncing and bumping inside and displaying that deceptively soft touch on short shots and jump hooks–yet DePaul managed to lose that game, blowing a double-digit lead in the second half. Williams’s nice play also failed to rescue the Demons in their conference tournament final against Saint Louis last weekend. Meanwhile, coach Pat Kennedy’s attempt to work Williams back into the lineup hindered the progress of seven-foot freshman center Steven Hunter, who had some remarkable games but never put them together. Like all but one of the DePaul bench players, he was scoreless in the tournament championship. Athletic junior transfer Paul McPherson, of the vaunted leaping ability, soon proved that he had few fundamental skills to fall back on. He didn’t hit a three-point shot until the tournament, a distressing statistic for someone who occupies the shooting-guard position, at least in the line score, yet after making one he went on to take several ill-advised long shots in the tourney. The five-and-and-half-foot-tall Burno developed a reputation as a scrappy player, but that couldn’t hide his inability to penetrate most defenses, while his frequent turnovers kept DePaul from turning its rebounding strength into a consistent running game. Freshman backup George Baker was never really urged to press Burno for the starting job, perhaps because he was only learning the point-guard position after playing shooting guard in high school. Freshman sharpshooter Joe Tulley never established himself in the regular rotation and therefore wasn’t able to provide outside relief against the swarming, double-teaming zone defenses typically used to shackle Richardson. Seniors Kerry Hartfield and Ayinde Avery offered little leadership; Hartfield suffered from diminished playing time, and Avery played as if out to prove he was merely scrap left over from the Joey Meyer era. As for Richardson, he stagnated in his sophomore season. His freshman scoring average of 18.9 actually dipped to 17.4. This was due in part to the team being better and more balanced overall, but he developed a tendency to disappear in big games. While Kenyon Martin was leading Cincinnati over the Blue Demons in that comeback at Allstate Arena, Richardson was missing both threes and free throws. One might expect Richardson to have learned something watching how a true leader operates, but he went scoreless in the first half of both the semifinal and the final games of the conference tournament–after Cincinnati had gone down when Martin suffered a broken leg in its first game–and he had a genuinely miserable afternoon in the championship contest, finishing with six points on 2-of-13 shooting. He probably saw his NBA draft status decline, which could be better in the long run for both him and the team if he feels forced to remain in school another year.
Yet DePaul won 20 games and made the NCAAs for the first time in eight years. So why is it this season–at least going into the Big Dance–has seemed so disappointing? As I said before, it’s because the Demons showed so little development. Perhaps expectations were unreasonably high this year. They remain a very young team, heavy with freshmen and sophomores, and after all, the second time around is difficult; there’s a reason for referring to the sophomore jinx. Yet they never even learned to take care of the ball, committing 12 turnovers in the first half of last week’s loss to Saint Louis, and from the beginning of the year had a distressing habit of losing focus with big leads, most notably against Cincinnati. That loss soured an evening that saw DePaul draw 18,000 fans to the Allstate Arena for the first time, breaking an arena record that reached back to the glory days of the 80s. That rep for squandering leads made the team seem tentative even when things were going well; they were on the verge of blowing out Memphis in the opening game of the conference tournament but struggled home to win 80-76. They opened the next two games trying not to play badly rather than trying to play well, a sure recipe for defeat. Defensively, the sophomores especially improved, playing a tough belly-to-belly, man-on-man defense that might have made Bobby Knight proud; that defense and their rebounding prowess give DePaul something to build on. Yet their offensive scheme was primitive at best and remedial at worst. With Burno dribbling from side to side and not penetrating, the typical DePaul possession would see the ball go to a player in the post who would be double-teamed and pass back outside, and then the ball would be reversed to the other side where the same operation would be repeated until somebody felt like shooting. There was typically little movement without the ball, no attempt to free Burno with screens and pick-and-rolls, and few occasions when DePaul tried to jump-start Richardson by isolating him on one side of the floor. The team didn’t even seem cognizant of these ever-so-slightly more advanced levels of the game.
And that ignorance, combined with DePaul’s tendency to panic in tight games, explains why Kennedy has come in for such harsh criticism even after rebuilding the DePaul program in a mere three years. The team seemed less coached this year than simply sent out to play. Sometimes this can be a good thing. Illinois’ Lou Henson was such a bad game-situation coach that he had his best year ten years ago when he coached the least and allowed that Kenny Battle-Nick Anderson team to fly around. One doesn’t know if Kennedy has his young players on a low-grade learning curve, the better to allow them to pursue their college studies. (The conference tournament arrived as they were preparing for finals; this might explain why the players seemed so preoccupied that they ran to the wrong basket after the opening tip of the championship game, if not the sequence in which they committed a shot-clock violation immediately after a timeout.) To his credit, Kennedy did get them playing excellent defense, a major concern only a year ago. Likewise, criticism of him for allowing Richardson to play outside, where he’ll probably play in the pros, rather than inside as a true college forward, is misguided; a college coach has to challenge and prepare his stars for the next level, otherwise their skills atrophy. (Look at the way the big men under Sonny Cox at King High School always seem to fizzle in college or the pros, at whatever point they can no longer simply turn and shoot.) But without a more advanced offense, DePaul will never be able to exploit Richardson’s strengths no matter where he plays, which is why their NCAA prospects seemed so slight, and why Richardson may opt to turn pro anyway.
After such high hopes, the program again seems on the verge of coming apart at the seams. Yet there’s reason for more hope. King’s Imari Sawyer arrives next year and he is a true point guard; in fact, he might be too much of a point guard. Sawyer is the sort of playmaker who holds up his index finger as if to say, “This is the number one play–I get to shoot.” He’s had run-ins with Cox at King and has a reputation as someone difficult to coach, which should fully test Kennedy’s nerve. But after recruiting three of the seemingly nicer kids to come out of Chicago’s Public League in recent years in Richardson, Simmons, and Williams, as well as the placid Proviso East giant Hunter, Kennedy and the Demons might need a little attitude. If Williams next year is fully recovered and pounding the boards alongside Simmons and a more mature Hunter, with the three of them dishing outlet passes to Richardson and Sawyer, DePaul might be able to put together a high-powered, run-and-gun offense that will all but coach itself while testing the sophisticated zone defenses that have made the college game so dreary in recent years. If Richardson returns and Sawyer avoids eligibility problems, Kennedy should have more talent than he knows what to do with. The mood at DePaul is dark right now and doesn’t figure to brighten this weekend, but dawn could be just over the hill. Isn’t that always the way with college athletics?