The Rutgers men’s basketball team faces their biggest test of the young season tonight in Chicago against former conference mate DePaul. The two schools last played in the 2013 Big East Tournament, which Rutgers won in the first round by the score of 76-57.
Both programs have new head coaches since that last meeting and they are very familiar with each other. DePaul head coach Dave Leitao was an assistant coach at UConn when Steve Pikiell was a player there under Jim Calhoun. The two sat on the bench together for one season when Pikiell became an assistant at UConn. There probably won't be much that will surprise the other during tonight’s game.
To get a full rundown on DePaul, I was fortunate to speak with co-managing editor Robert O’Neill of SB Nation’s Big East Coast Bias about the Blue Demons. Like Rutgers, DePaul was picked to finish in last place of their conference this season. It will be a litmus test game for both programs. Here is what Robert had to say about DePaul, including his prediction for this game.
Head coach Dave Leitao in his second year as head coach after going 9-22 last season. He is actually the last head coach to take DePaul to the NCAA tournament back in 2004, during his first stint at the school. What was the feeling in hiring him again and do you think he is right coach to rebuild the program?
I think the general feeling within the fanbase with bringing Dave Leitao back was apathy. He was the last coach to have success at DePaul, but that was a decade ago. I think the guy DePaul fans really would have liked was then-Valparaiso (now Vanderbilt) head coach Bryce Drew. DePaul fans tend to be a contemptuous bunch when it comes to basketball, which will happen when you haven't been successful in years.
Personally, I think Leitao is a perfectly fine hire. He inherited a bit of a mess, but his recruiting has already been strong, as he's really focused on Chicago and Indiana to land some really nice pieces going forth. DePaul is moving into a new arena along Chicago's lakefront next year, as well, which will help recruiting. So it's important to have a strong recruiter like Leitao at the helm.
DePaul was picked to finish last in the Big East this season and haven't had a winning season since 2006-2007. What are the expectations from the fan base for this year?
With the Cubs no longer being perennial losers, DePaul fans have kind of taken on that role. It's a mix of wanting the team to be successful every year, but realizing it probably won't happen. If you combine a bad team with an arena that's 12 miles off-campus, with games that usually start right at the tail end of rush hour, it's hard to get fan support at a level you'd like. It's a shame, because DePaul was one of the best teams in the country for most of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The best players on the team appear to be Eli Cain and Billy Garrett Jr. in the backcourt and Tre'Darius McCallum in the frontcourt. Please talk about their strengths and what Rutgers fans should look for when they are on the court.
Garrett and Cain are one of the most dynamic backcourts in the Big East. They're both scorers, and both excel at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line. Garrett's an 83% free throw shooter in his career, so if possible Rutgers will want to keep him off the foul line. I'm actually very interested in seeing which of Garrett or Cain draw the assignment of guarding Corey Sanders. That'll be a matchup to watch.
McCallum, on the other hand, is a JuCo transfer who I think surprised a lot of people (myself included) in DePaul's season opening win over Robert Morris when he had 10 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. While I'm not going to expect that from him every game, obviously, if he can be a "Swiss army knife" type of player for DePaul in that he can do a lot of things very well, he'll be a big asset.
DePaul only used an 8 man rotation in their opening win over Robert Morris, and only 7 players saw a lot of minutes. How much of an issue is depth and should we expect a similar rotation against Rutgers?
Depth is absolutely an issue, especially in the frontcourt. Coming into the season, DePaul only returned five scholarship players from 2015-16. They were dealt a mix of seniors graduating or, in the case of 2013-14 Big East All Rookie center Tommy Hamilton, transfers.
As a result, DePaul is working a lot of freshmen and transfers into the rotation. The frontcourt consists of McCallum, walk-on Joe Hanel, freshman Al Eichelberger, and freshman Levi Cook. So the Blue Demons don't exactly have a ton of options at the moment. You'd like to be able to get those guys, especially the freshmen, some minutes to get comfortable. The problem is, Rutgers is a pretty big team. The Scarlet Knights have the pieces to cause mismatches. So DePaul probably would like to go a bit deeper in the bench, but they just aren't able to at this juncture.
Robert Morris held a +6 rebounding edge over DePaul in the opener. Was rebounding an area of concern entering the season and how do you expect them to prepare for Rutgers, who have five players 6'9" or taller?
Rebounding was 100% a concern. DePaul averaged right around 34 rebounds per game last season. Between the aforementioned Tommy Hamilton, Myke Henry (graduated), and Rashaun Stimage (graduated), DePaul lost 16 of the 34 rebounds. Rutgers' size is going to be an issue for DePaul, and could very well be a difference maker in this game. Not to mention, Deshawn Freeman already has two double-digit rebound games in two games played this season.
Is DePaul likely to stick with man to man on defense or will they likely mix in a zone or fullcourt press?
One of the things about Dave Leitao, historically, is he isn't married to one defensive scheme. He has no issues mixing it up depending on the situation and opposing personnel. I think we'll see DePaul in man early on, but it wouldn't shock me at all to see some changes throughout the game.
What is your prediction for the game?
I think I have to give the edge to Rutgers. I think DePaul has the advantage in the backcourt with Cain and Garrett, but I just have no idea how they're going to be able to stop the bigs. 75-68, Rutgers.
Thanks to Robert for his great insight on DePaul ahead of tonight’s game. For more coverage on the Blue Demons, as well as the entire Big East conference, visit Big East Coast Bias throughout the season. To view my answers to Robert’s questions on Rutgers, including my game predicition, click here.
To read my game preview for Rutgers at DePaul, click here.