Justin Dukes is a contributor to WARR.com; The City Game focuses coverage on the game of basketball at the amateur levels in and around the city of Chicago
You had to figure history was on the minds of the people behind the building of Wintrust Arena and the beneficiaries of that new state of the art gym in the South Loop, DePaul Blue Demons basketball, as it opened for its first season late last year.
With the first Big East season in Wintrust’s history wrapping up, the Blue Demons’ women are enjoying another successful season by hosting the conference’s first season-ending tournament in Chicago this weekend. Meanwhile, with the women’s tournament placards already on the floor, the men’s team is an afterthought once again, but they gave a good try at least in their last regular season loss to No. 3 Xavier.
Saturday afternoon saw the Musketeers sweep into Wintrust with Fox network cameras and history of their own on their minds — after a tougher-than-expected 65-62 win over DePaul the Cincinnati school clinched both its first-ever Big East regular season conference championship and the top seed in the Big East tournament to come next week in New York.
With a visitors locker room celebration at the conclusion of Saturday’s early events, the somewhat silent opposing locker room for the Blue Demons could do nothing but try to shift focus to the first round of the Big East Tournament and slink out in time to make room for the first women’s tournament competitors as that tourney kicked off in the evening.
“As I said to our guys in the locker room, especially our seniors, I’m really happy for them,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said in his post-game press conference. “You know, we’re the only team in the conference to win the Big East regular season outside of Villanova. This league is a monster league, so to watch those kids come in on their unofficial visits with their parents and you sell them a dream, and to see that sort of culminate and be outright champs is special.”
An 11-19 season wasn’t what the Blue Demons had envisioned for the Wintrust Arena opening season, but a deeper look into many of the losses this season could be a good source of motivation as they make their final last gasp at possibly making the NCAA Tournament by navigating the Big East tourney (seeded No. 10, the Blue Demons take on No. 7 Marquette Wednesday evening at Madison Square Garden).
As snake-bitten a team as the Big East can provide, DePaul has lost nine games this season by single digits, showing that they’ve done a lot of things to win games but varying degrees of execution errors have kept the team from breaking through in a significant way. Saturday provided a clear example of this phenomenon.
Looking at the scoreboard and the 3-point deficit that concluded Saturday’s loss, it was again a reminder that the Blue Demons aren’t completely devoid of talent, just consistency.
Xavier started the game sloppy and had nine more turnovers than the Blue Demons, but were ultimately saved by their 19 free throws taken to DePaul’s nine, and their 31 defensive rebounds to DePaul’s 22. For a big portion of the game there seemed to be momentary lapses in effort from the Blue Demons, but they turned things around and managed to cut an 11-point lead while also limiting Xavier to 2 points in the final few minutes of the game just to come up short losing by three.
Sophomore guard Brandon Cyrus lead the Blue Demons with 20 points. Along with guard Eli Cain, DePaul only had two players in double digits while Xavier had four. Senior guard Trevon Blueitt, who ranks as Xavier’s second all-time leading scorer, lead the Musketeers with 22 points.
For years the Villanova Wildcats have been looked upon as the face of the Big East, but with last year’s run to the Elite Eight and this year’s conference clincher over the Blue Demons, Xavier is definitely showing the existence of another national power within the conference.
“I always want to be the little kid that flies up and jumps in the pool, doesn’t test the water like a 48-year-old would,” Mack said to ESPN. “Just jump right in. I’m a big believer in you get what you earn and you earn what you get and you go after things. You don’t play on your heels and play defensive and scared and have success. That’s how I want our team to play.”
The Musketeers kick off Thursday action in the Big East quarterfinals against either St. John’s or Georgetown. Take a look at the full 2018 Big East Tournament bracket here.
Ups & Downs March Edition
DePaul sits as one of the four Chicago city university teams still alive in March. Surprisingly, the one program that came into the season with the highest expectations, Northwestern, is the first one to exit stage left for the year.
No bigger downer exists locally than the Wildcats, who after taking the city and its long-suffering students and graduates on a ride with their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2017 came nowhere near close to the tournament this year. NU’s 15-16 regular season record put it nowhere near an at-large berth in March Madness and they bowed out of the earlier-than-ever Big Ten Tournament in one game by losing to Penn State on Thursday.
The Wildcats were not a rebuilding team this season, they returned just about all their heroes from last season including all-Big Ten guard Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law and Dererk Pardon.
Stay tuned for more City Game: Ups & Downs as we look over the rest of Chicago and greater Illinois’ college teams as they all try to reach a postseason tournament and maybe even some significant tournament droughts — Missouri Valley favorite Loyola hasn’t made an NCAA Tournament since 1985. UIC, which kicks off in the Horizon League tourney today as a No. 3 seed, hasn’t made the Big Dance since 2004. Below are their schedule plans for Sunday, all times are central:
Missouri Valley Championship: (1) Loyola vs. (3) Illinois State, in St. Louis, 1 pm (CBS)
Horizon League Quarterfinal: (3) UIC vs. (6) UW-Milwaukee, in Detroit, 4 pm (ESPN 3)
Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio; Justin Dukes is a Chicago-based sports writer, follow him on Twitter @1kingzdream