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Villanova Basketball 2021-22 game preview: DePaul Blue Demons

The Blue Demons might still be cursed, but not a complete pushover like years past.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Connecticut vs DePaul Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After Villanova enjoyed a 34-point beatdown of Creighton in a rematch between the Wildcats and Bluejays, the ‘Cats are back on the road and headed for the Windy City.

Villanova (10-4, 3-1 Big East) will look to build on its three-game winning streak against DePaul.

Meanwhile, the Blue Demons (9-4, 0-3 Big East) enter Saturday’s matchup after losing three-straight. They recently lost to St. John’s on Wednesday night, falling to a Red Storm team that shook off the rust from an 18-day layoff due to COVID-19.

Tip-off for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET and will be on Fox Sports 1.

Will the real DePaul Blue Demons please stand up?

DePaul started the season off on a promising note, winning nine of its first 10 games of the year — a stretch that included notable wins over Rutgers and on the road at Louisville. Even in its lone loss during this 10-game window, the Blue Demons looked good in a narrow four-point defeat to Loyola-Chicago.

It’s happened before, where the Blue Demons put together an impressive non-conference stretch, leading people to think “this is the year!” — only for DePaul to fall flat and hard to the bottom once Big East play comes around. It most recently happened when the Strus was loose in the 2018-19 season, but Max Strus wasn’t enough to carry the Blue Demons after a 8-3 non-conference start. They finished last in the conference, but 19-17 overall that season.

A year later, with Charlie Moore and Paul Reed at the forefront, it was an even harder fall. DePaul started off the 2019-20 campaign 12-1, before going 3-15 the rest of the way through another last place finish in the Big East.

Here we are, another college basketball season, where we’re wondering if this is the year DePaul can finally break out of the bottom of the pack. The Blue Demons’ recent losses have pumped the brakes a bit, but despite the losing results, DePaul has remained competitive.

To first-year coach Tony Stubblefield’s credit, he and his Blue Demons have surpassed the early expectations. They started off better than anyone could have anticipated, considering DePaul was dealing with the largest amount of roster turnover out of anyone in the conference — with 11 players gone from last season’s team and plenty of newcomers and transfers entering the picture. They gelled quickly and had some early success, but now they’re trying to regain confidence and composure after a rough start to Big East play.

There’s still plenty of season left, and having Villanova in town will certainly fire them up. DePaul has found success through the season with an uptempo style of play. It’s another team that has tried to make its mark on the interior on both ends of the court, shooting an efficient 52.1% inside the arc to cover up its deficiencies from long range. It also protects the paint well on the defensive end, ranking in the top 50 nationwide for two-point shooting percentage allowed (44.9%).

DePaul has one of the best shot-blocking teams in the conference and in the country, ranking only behind St. John’s and UConn, but also falling in 33rd for blocking rate in Division I according to KenPom (13.8%).

The Blue Demons also play pretty disciplined defense, boasting the 21st-lowest free throw rate allowed in the country. They’ve also limited their opponents to just a 33.8% clip from beyond the arc.

Diving into DePaul

Looking at a more specific player breakdown of the DePaul, a lot rests on the do-it-all guard Javon Freeman-Liberty, who tops the red, white, and blue-clad Blue Demons.

Freeman-Liberty, a 6-foot-4 guard, is one of the few holdovers from last year’s roster, and he’s elevated his play for his senior season. Freeman-Liberty is one of two Big East players — other than St. John’s Julian Champagnie — who averages more than 20 points per game. He’s much more than a scorer though, also averaging 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game. There are many perimeter-shooting threats on this DePaul team, but Freeman-Liberty is definitely the top one. The three-level scorer is shooting 36.5% from deep.

The other remaining players from the Dave Leitao era are playing in much bigger roles for Stubblefield. Sophomore forward David Jones is averaging 15.7 points and a team-high 8.2 rebounds after barely playing last season. Junior 6-foot-11 center Nick Ongenda has emerged as one of the top shot-blockers in the conference and he’s posting career-highs in every other category as well, with 10.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

As for the newcomers, keep an eye on Brandon Johnson, Philmon Gebrewhit, Jalen Terry, Javan Johnson and Yor Anei. Transfers Brandon Johnson (Minnesota) and Gebrewhit (South Plains CC) have carved out starting roles with the Blue Demons. Johnson, a 6-foot-8 big man adds a scoring and rebounding punch, and can occasionally make threes. Meanwhile, Gebrewhit adds athleticism in the backcourt. He’s up-and-down as a scorer, but has been relatively quiet compared to his first couple of games at DePaul.

Javan Johnson, Terry, and Anei round out the rotation. Javan Johnson, a last-second graduate transfer from Iowa State, was recently made eligible and has appeared in each of the last three games. He provides solid energy off the bench and doesn’t seem to force scoring opportunities, and looks to chip in where he can.

Terry, a 6-foot guard from Oregon, adds point guard depth and is a facilitator to rely on off the bench. Then there’s Anei, a 6-foot-10 center from SMU. Anei doesn’t score much, but he makes up for it on the defensive end. He’s a solid rim protector and another consistent shot-blocker for the Blue Demons.