Big East, baby! The new old conference opens play Tuesday night with a slew of games, providing a needed restart heading into the new year. Just one conference team is ranked, as some projected beasts of the Big East have underperformed while others have suffered injuries or suspensions. In the case of Georgetown, the preseason was alternately dull and disappointing. But now we're into conference play: 18 games of home-and-home action followed by a conference tournament at MSG: a perfect format for fomenting new rivalries, rekindling old ones, and additional nose-breaking by Jabril Trawick. Tonight, that slate begins against DePaul . Let's get to it!
The Big Picture. The Oliver Purnell Era, now in its fourth year, has yielded nothing good or, at best, marginal and fleeting progress. With one notable exception, Purnell has struggled to lure prime Chicago recruits--unsurprising, given the school's despicable arena and apathetic fanbase--and has not yet made much of the talent on hand. The Blue Demons have never won more than 3 conference games under Purnell, and have not seriously contended to play in the postseason. The shine on Purnell's run-and-gun style has long since worn off, and a middling 8-5 start to the season, low-lighted by a loss to Illinois State and a near-loss to Chicago State, hasn't helped. Time may be running out, though maybe salvation lies in conference play.
Roster rundown. DePaul is a mixture of two old hands, three prominent new faces, and a few more rotation pieces.
The familiar names are a pair of seniors, forward Cleveland Melvin (16.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.2 blk pg, 46.9% FG) and guard Brandon Young (14.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.5 stl pg). For the fourth consecutive year, these two are leading the Demons in scoring. Both players are effective in transition, with Young being the better ball-handler and distributor and Melvin the better offensive rebounder and outside shooter.
The newcomers are two freshmen and a transfer. First is guard Billy Garrett Jr. (10.6 ppg, 3.6 apg, 34.5 FG%, 2.3 TO pg), a top-flight recruit who probably was lured to DePaul in part because his dad has been an assistant there for four years. Garrett has taken some of the lead guard duties from Young, though he's producing more volume than efficiency. The other freshman is Tommy Hamilton IV (9.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg), a large and skilled post player who, like Garrett, is still playing through mistakes (39.8 FG%). The transfer is Sandi Marcius (6.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), an efficient but inconsistent scorer and an effective rebounder.
Off the pine, guard Durrell McDonald (5.5 ppg) provides the occasional outside shooting, while two junior wings, Charles McKinney (4.3 ppg, 1.3 apg) and Jamee Crockett (4.2 ppg) have seen their time dwindle this season.
DePaul basketball on twitter. A general rule of thumb is that when Northwestern fans are calling a one-point loss to your team the worst they've seen, perhaps you'd better find a new way to pass the Chicago winter.
When DePaul has the ball.
- Blue Demon to watch: Melvin. Small forward has been a soft spot for Georgetown, and Melvin has seen more time at that position now that Marcius and Hamilton are manning the post. Melvin is a threat all over the court, hitting the offensive boards hits and burying more than 1.5 triples per game. Georgetown must keep Melvin in check Tuesday.
- Hoya to watch: Jabril Trawick. Last season, Trawick forged a defensive identity by clamping down one Big East guard after another. This year, Trawick has been up and down early. He has struggled with foul trouble and his outside shot, but has remained a determined defender, an effective off-ball cutter and an efficient finisher. Tuesday, Trawick will be assigned to Melvin, to whom he will yield three inches in height but not much else.
- Number to watch: offensive rebounds. Georgetown's otherwise stout defense has struggled in two respects. First, the Hoyas have fouled at a disastrous rate, one of the twenty or so worst in the nation. Second, Georgetown has been far too permissive on the defensive boards, in part because of Joshua Smith's inexcusably bad defensive rebounding. DePaul's otherwise middling offense has been boosted by near-elite offensive rebounding: the Demons grab nearly 38 percent of their own misses. Melvin and Marcius bear particular attention on this front.
- Feeling delusional because...Georgetown could get a lot of opportunities in transition caused by Blue Demon turnovers. DePaul has struggled to hold onto the rock this season, turning the ball over on more than 20 percent of possessions. For their part, the Hoyas have taken the ball away on more than a fifth of opposing possessions, including 18 forced turnovers in Saturday's win over FIU.
- Feeling cynical because...Georgetown's struggles to control the defensive boards, DePaul's big lineup, and the Hoyas' tendency to foul could lead to some early trouble for the Hoyas.
When Georgetown has the ball.
- Hoya to watch: Smith. Smith has been up and down throughout non-conference play, tallying big minutes and big offensive production when he can stay on the floor, but playing half the game or less when foul trouble arises. He is a beast in the post against any defense, but conference opponents generally will be bigger and better equipped to handle him. Can Smith be a bully in the Big East?
- Blue Demon to watch: Young. Purnell's DePaul teams have liked to run, finishing in the top 10 in the country in adjusted pace the last two seasons. This year, a bigger front line has brought with it a slower pace, but one that still is ramped up by the Demons' desire to force turnovers. Young nabs a steal and a half per game; off the pine, McDonald and McKinney each pilfer once per contest as well.
- Number to watch: two-point field goals. DePaul's tendency to gamble for steals, especially in full-court press, often leaves easy looks for a team that can get past the first line of defense. The Blue Demons opponents make nearly 50 percent of their shots inside the arc, a below-average mark nationally, while the Hoyas shoot an elite 56.8 percent from two. Tuesday, Georgetown must hold onto the ball and work it inside for easy looks.
- Feeling delusional because...Georgetown has had DePaul's number in recent years. The Hoyas have beaten the Blue Demons 11 straight times, including all 8 meetings since DePaul joined the Big East. The Hoyas haven't missed a beat since Purnell implemented his frenetic style, overcoming stretches of messy turnovers with patient offensive execution that leads to wide open looks.
- Feeling cynical because...That streak is going to end some time, and DePaul's pressing style tends to make things uglier for its opponents, win or lose.
Conclusion. Georgetown is the better team and is at home. There are any number of scenarios that could play out Tuesday: early foul trouble could hamstring the Hoyas; a torrid Georgetown shooting display could blow it open before the half; or the game could follow the ebb-and-sudden-flow of most recent match-ups against DePaul. The most likely outcome is that Georgetown should be able to force DePaul into turnovers and misguided heaves, and dissect the Blue Demon defense enough to kick off the Big East on the right foot.