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2022-23 Big East Men’s Basketball Summer Check-In: DePaul Blue Demons

Year One of Tony Stubblefield in charge meant one of the best DePaul seasons since they joined the Big East. Can they keep that going?

St. John’s v DePaul
This is Nick Ongenda. He is DePaul’s leading returning scorer.
Photo by Porter Binks/Getty Images

Team: DePaul Blue Demons

2021-22 Record: 15-16, 6-14 Big East

2021-22 Big East Finish: Tied for ninth with Butler, but lost the season series 2-0 and took the #10 seed in the conference tournament.

Final 2021-22 Ranking: #103, their 13th season as a sub-100 program in the past 15 seasons and 15th straight as a sub-90 team.

Postseason: After starting off the game on a 12-2 run, DePaul gave up four different double digit differential runs in the first half to St. John’s in the first round of the Big East tournament, trailed 49-29 at the half, and lost 92-73 to end their season.

Key DePartures: Before I say anything else, I want you to understand that with 15 wins last season, DePaul had more wins than in 12 of the previous 14 seasons. Their six Big East wins were more than they had in five of the previous six seasons and in 11 of the previous 13 campaigns.

Okay? Everything make sense here?


DePaul loses their top three scorers from the 2021-22 team who also double as their top three rebounders, and two of those guys are two of the three guys who averaged more than two assists a game. #1 and #2 in scoring was Javon Freeman-Liberty and David Jones, and those two guys traded spots in the rebounding charts. JFL averaged 21.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game while operating as the highest usage player in the entire Big East during conference play, but he elected to pursue a pro career instead of returning for his bonus season of eligibility. Jones apparently had enough of DePaul over the past two years, and after having a breakout season of 14.5 points and a team high 7.4 rebounds to go with 2.4 assists a night, he transferred to St. John’s. I don’t want to say that’s a back-breaking kind of departure, but that certainly doesn’t bode well for the Blue Demons, given the overall trend for the Red Storm.

The third guy in the scoring trio is also the #3 rebounding guy, and that’s Brandon Johnson. If you’re saying “I have zero recollection of this guy,” that’s mostly okay. This was his only year at DePaul after three at Western Michigan and one at Minnesota. However, he started all 31 games, the only Blue Demon to do that and one of just two players to appear in all 31, which is pretty great for a guy who was only there for one season. Johnson averaged 10.5 points and 6.8 rebounds, and those are very nice numbers for a fifth year transfer. It’s a safe bet that DePaul will miss him as a steady influence if nothing else.

DePaul also loses Courvoisier McCauley from their rotation last season. He took a decent sized step forward in his second season in Lincoln Park, averaging 5.7 points and 2.4 rebounds in just short of 17 minutes a night. The former Division 2 player elected to spend his bonus season of eligibility at Indiana State, which is a bit closer to home for the Indianapolis native.

Key Returners: Nick Ongenda is the key-est of Key Returners, as he is your leading returning scorer and rebounder at this point. That’s not really a compliment to DePaul, as the big Canadian averaged career highs of 8.7 points and 4.3 rebounds while starting in 27 of his 30 appearances. That’s good for him, it’s not great for the Blue Demons that his production is the standard bearer for the team coming out of arguably their best season in nearly two decades.

Jalen Terry returns as well for DePaul, and the 6’0” guard should provide some stability in the back court. He finished second on the team in assists to Freeman-Liberty at 3.1 per game, which is good, but he’s going to have to cut down on the turnovers, because a 24% rate is not what you want from your point guard.

There are three more guys that we have to mention here, but they all fall into the category of “what is DePaul going to get out of them this season?” Philmon Gebrewhit was the other guy who appeared in all 31 games a year ago, but he lost his starting gig midway through Big East play. The 6’7” forward averaged 4.8 points, 2.2 rebounds, and just over an assist per game in 23 minutes a night in his first year of Division 1 action, but those numbers dipped to 17.8 minutes, 2.4 points, 1.2 rebounds, and under an assist once he fell out of the starting lineup. Yor Anei played in 30 games last season with four starts in the middle of the year. That’s good! The former Oklahoma State and SMU center played the fewest minutes of his career (15.4 per game) and as a result, posted career lows in points (4.6) and blocks (1.6) although he had a nice bounce back from a bad rebounding year with the Mustangs and averaged 4.1 a night on the glass. He was one of the best shot blockers in the Big East last season, but his turnover rate might have limited his ability to actually play. Then again, Ongenda seems like the much better option in the middle, so there’s that, too.

The third guy has the biggest question mark, and that’s Javan Johnson. The 6’6” forward joined DePaul from Iowa State after entering the transfer portal in late August, and made his debut on December 29th. He played in 10 games with starts in the last two, and averaged 7.1 points and 2.2 rebounds while shooting 38% from long range. That’s the kind of thing you like to see, but then the Alabama native missed the rest of the season with a hand injury. He’s presumably completely healed from it, and a hand injury doesn’t prevent you from staying in good cardio shape, but we don’t know how much basketball work he was actually able to do in between early February and when he was fully cleared.

Key Additions: Alright, buckle up, because this is going to take a while. DePaul has seven new faces on the roster, and that doesn’t include Ahamad Bynum, the top 100 prospect out of Simeon in Chicago who didn’t play last season due to eligibility issues. I presume he’s cleared now because he’s still on the roster, so having a top 100 guy coming off a redshirt year isn’t the worst thing ever.

Let’s start with the brand new freshmen on the roster, because there’s just two of them. Zion Cruz (6’4”, 183 lbs.) is the most notable one, as 247 Sports has the shooting guard from California as the #73 prospect in the country. That makes him the 7th best prospect to enroll at DePaul since the turn of the century, and that’s not nothing. I don’t know what to make of Mo Sall (6’5”, 180 lbs.) who apparently does not exist according to 247 Sports, but it also appears that he only made the decision to attend DePaul in August, so there’s that. This sounds awful walk-on-ish to me, but it’s DePaul and weirder things than “guy appears out of nowhere makes contribution to team” have happened.

There are three Division 1 transfers on DePaul’s roster as well as a pair of guys making the leap up to Division 1 from the junior college ranks. Let’s start with the D1 guys, as they’re a little bit more of a known quantity. Eral Penn (6’6”, 201 lbs.) and Umoja Gibson (6’1”, 173 lbs.) are on their final seasons of eligibility, so they’re the two guys most likely to make an impact on the roster right away. Penn got a look from Marquette when he announced that he was leaving Long Island for his bonus season of eligibility after the Sharks decided to change coaches over the summer, so take that into account when thinking about his affect on a roster. In his final two seasons with LIU, Penn averaged 16.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. If he can regain his shooting touch from his sophomore and junior years (34% on 44 attempts) as opposed to the 29% on 136 attempts last season, he could be a pretty complete player. Gibson is actually on his sixth year in college after suffering a season ending injury two games into his first of three years at North Texas. He transferred to Oklahoma for the last two campaigns and evolved into a starter last year. He went for 13.3 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.5 assists last year, and he’s a career 39.6% long range shooter.

Caleb Murphy (6’4”, 185 lbs.) is a traditional transfer as he spent the past two years at USF. He had a breakout year last year for the Bulls, averaging 11.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. Murphy also has a career effective field goal percentage of just 40.8% largely because he has not showed any ability to hit threes at all and also because he’s not so great inside the arc, either. I will leave it to you to decide whether his usage rates were sky high because USF went 17-36 in his two seasons in Tampa or if that is the other way around.

Finally, there’s junior college transfers K.T. Raimey (6’3”, 166 lbs.) and Da’Sean Nelson (6’8”, 185 lbs.) and you’re never going to believe this, but DePaul hasn’t actually put together a bio for these guys yet. Raimey was signed by the Blue Demons last fall after averaging 11.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.6 assists for College of Southern Idaho in his first year there. He played in just eight games for them last season, averaging 11.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. Nelson comes over to Chicago after averaging 13.6 points and 6.2 rebounds across two seasons at Kilgore College in Texas.

Head Coach: Tony Stubblefield, entering his second season at DePaul and as a head coach. He, quite obviously, has a career record of 15-16.

Outlook: Within the framing of a national perspective of college basketball, I don’t think anyone is particularly expecting anything good to happen with DePaul basketball this season. This isn’t a knock on anyone on the team or anything, it’s more of a commentary on the gravitational forces involved. Last year was one of the best DePaul seasons in a while, and the Blue Demons even started the year 9-1! And then they went 1-9 in their first 10 Big East games and the rest of the season kind of went like that. This is not entirely unlike the 2019-20 season when DePaul opened up the year 9-0, blew a chance to be ranked by losing a Sunday home game to Buffalo, ended up 12-1 heading into league play..... and then went 1-12 in their next 13.

In other words: Even if we see a nice start to the season, we have all been trained to not believe that anything good in the traditional sense of good is happening with DePaul, at least not until we’re in the middle of January.

But what about “good for DePaul”? Is that possible? We’re talking about a program that has won more than six games in conference play just one time since 2008 and hasn’t had 10 league wins since before they moved to the Big East in 2006. Take a peek at the T-Rank forecast for them. Ignore the #95 at the top of the page. Scroll past their schedule. Look at the projected record for them. 8-12 in the Big East.

That would be their best season in 15 years.

Is that possible? I definitely believe in “DePaul is better.”

If you don’t, I don’t think you’re wrong, either. They have a lot of problems here. Losing Javon Freeman-Liberty, David Jones, and Brandon Johnson leaves the Blue Demons with an awful lot of production that they have to replace. Losing Jones to St. John’s is particularly problematic because it’s not like the Johnnies are out there knocking it dead and things are rapidly approaching “we have to make a decision about Mike Anderson” in Queens, possibly before Jones’ eligibility wraps up. There’s no one returning on the roster that makes you say “ah, yes, he is prepared to make The Leap and will be The Man for them this year.” The incoming transfers are mostly speaking perfectly acceptable role players for the Big East type of level, and I wouldn’t wager a lot of money on any of them suddenly turning into all-conference performers this year. Someone has to turn into The Man, the guy they turn to when they need a bucket, and I have no idea who that’s going to be, which is probably not great.

Here’s the thing, though. Tony Stubblefield took over a roster that was suffering major departures last season and had just four returning players.... and he turned that into a pretty solid first season. He’s returning more than that this year, and these guys are familiar with what Stubblefield is asking from them now. If he was able to fold in a bunch of new faces and turn it into a pretty solid first season, then I think it’s reasonable to expect DePaul to take a step forward from that, even if Stubblefield is folding in a bunch of new faces again.

It’s probably not going to be a winning season, but don’t be surprised if we’re talking about a frisky DePaul team biting teams in the ass repeatedly by the time we get to February.

Let’s just cross our fingers that Marquette is not one of those teams again.