Nick Knacks

Column: Sorry, Loyola. DePaul Has Taken Control of Chicago Men’s Basketball

Courtesy of Alexa Sandler | The DePauliaThe DePaul bench celebrates during a game against Central Michigan at Wintrust Arena.

Being wrong sucks.

A few weeks back, I wrote the Loyola men’s basketball team had a chance to take over Chicago because the three professional teams in season — the Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks — stink. At the end, I said University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) could also help lift things up.

What I didn’t expect was DePaul University to skyrocket to the top.

In the four weeks since that column ran, Loyola has struggled to a 5-4 record and UIC has fallen to 3-6. Talk about an air-ball.

DePaul, meanwhile, is 8-0 after defeating University of Minnesota on the road Nov. 29. The Blue Demons were picked last out of 10 teams in the Big East Conference preseason poll and their head coach, Dave Leitao, was suspended for the first three games of the season for a recruiting violation. See why expectations were low?

You have to give credit where credit’s due. There’s a new king of Chicago men’s college basketball, and its throne sits in Lincoln Park — for the time being, at least.

The Blue Demons pack some star power this season. Their starting five all average more than nine points per game. Junior Paul Reed and University of Kansas transfer Charlie Moore appeared unstoppable against Minnesota. Watch out for those two this year.

Courtesy of Alexa Sandler | The DePaulia DePaul players Romeo Weems (left) and Jaylen Butz celebrate after a play during a game against Central Michigan at Wintrust Arena.

It’s important to note DePaul won eight non-conference games last year before going 7-11 in conference play. Max Strus led DePaul with 20.1 points per game and now plays for the Bulls. Moore has done a good job filling Strus’ shoes, scoring 17.1 points per contest, while Reed increased his scoring average by three whole points to 15.3 per game.

Could DePaul command the city like it did in the 1970s and 80s when they made 12 straight NCAA Tournaments, including the 1979 Final Four? Let’s not go that far. But the city needs to be put on notice. This team could be for real — and, honestly, maybe better than the Bulls.

Loyola could’ve been in this conversation, though. The Ramblers could be 8-1 right now — but a borderline-embarrassing loss to Coppin State University Nov. 12 and blowing two double-digit leads in the Cayman Islands Classic tournament Nov. 25-26 left their marks.

Last season, Coppin State ranked 342 out of 353 teams in the NCAA Evaluation Tool — a metric which helps determine which teams receive at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. That means, objectively speaking, the Eagles were the 11th worst team in Division I. Loyola also led both University of South Florida and Colorado State University by double digits in the Cayman Islands Classic, but the team couldn’t close out the games. Those should’ve all been victories.

“The Blue Demons pack some star power this season. Their starting five all average more than nine points per game.”

Nick Schultz, sports editor

This season wasn’t exactly thought to be March Madness-or-bust for Loyola, which was picked fourth out of 10 teams in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll. It was seen as a building season toward a potential run in 2020-21 since only Bruno Skokna is set to graduate after this year. But the Ramblers still had a chance to be the best team in town with the way their non-conference schedule was set up.

This is where the growing pains are seen. Loyola’s 15-player roster consists of seven underclassmen, and three of its upperclassmen transferred in this season. That means 10 players have a year or less of Division I experience, so it’ll take some time for this group to figure out how to play together.

For now, it’s DePaul’s time to shine.

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