Reigning Big East Rookie of the Year Billy Garrett brings upstart DePaul to New Jersey for first of two meetings with Seton Hall. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)
Still firmly entrenched within the Top 25 as the 24th-ranked team in the nation, Seton Hall returns from what will be a nine-day absence on Thursday with a matchup that appears winnable on paper, yetwill be anything but that on the court against a DePaul team that has made more noise than usual in recent Big East seasons, winning four of their first six league contests.
In his fifth year at the helm, head coach Oliver Purnell has managed to overcome criticism for both his lackluster results and million-dollar salary by guiding DePaul to a 10-9 start, not to mention victories over potential NCAA Tournament teams in Xavier and St. John's. Reigning conference Freshman of the Year Billy Garrett, Jr., whose father is on Purnell's staff as an assistant coach, has been the reason behind the revival, with his scoring punch and steady hand helping his supporting cast of Illinois castoff Myke Henry and Tommy Hamilton rise up to become top-flight offensive weapons. In addition, swingman Jamee Crockett, whose breakout game at the Allstate Arena three years ago effectively cost Seton Hall an NCAA Tournament berth, returns with a double-figure scoring average, and is intent on sinking the Pirates' ship once more.
With both teams looking to further solidify their resurgence, we turn it over to friend of the site Dan Stack, who covers the Blue Demons for WeAreDePaul.com, to introduce us further to the Second City's native sons as DePaul continues to move up the ladder in what may very well be their most successful Big East season since joining the league in 2006:
Jaden Daly: First things first, how has DePaul managed to win four Big East games? Is there the same "it came out of nowhere" feeling from those closer to the program than we are?
Dan Stack: It's been a slow and steady process, but coach Oliver Purnell finally has the guys he feels comfortable to compete with.
We'll discuss Billy Garrett Jr. next, but it all starts with him. After that, the Demons are getting a great season from Illinois transfer Myke Henry, as he gives the Demons a great inside-out threat. They are also getting a great senior season from Jamee Crockett, who is a great slasher and shooter, who also defends well. Then we've got senior Forrest Robinson, who is a great pick-and-pop stretch four who you have to guard out deep.
The team has really bought into each other and team chemistry has improved vastly after too many players were out for themselves in year's past (think Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin).
JD: Looking through the stats, we've been beyond impressed with Billy Garrett. Exactly how much of a jump has he made from freshman to sophomore, and how much more should we expect later on?
DS: The basketball IQ Garrett possesses is beyond impressive and he is as unselfish, poised and polished a player you want in a point guard leading your team. With Young and Melvin gone, it was a clear assumption this was now Garret's team and he took it upon himself to get ready for the bullseye that was going to be on his back.
He struggled a tad early on, but he is getting it gear now and he should be in the consideration for Big East first team if he and the team keeps this up. He just makes the right decisions with the ball in his hands. He sets up his teammates well and does a great job of attacking the rim and getting fouled, where he is money at the line.
Expect him to only get better.
JD: Even with Isaiah Whitehead out, Seton Hall is still playing an eight-man rotation, sometimes even nine men on the floor. Does DePaul's depth enable them to not only stay with the Pirates energy-wise, but also from an athleticism standpoint?
DS: Yes, somewhat. DePaul usually goes about eight deep, but they are now working to get 6'8” JUCO forward Rashaun Stimage back into the mix. He was supposed to be DePaul's defensive dynamo and he is an above-average rebounder. He broke his foot in a preseason scrimmage and they are slowly working him back into the mix.
The Demons rely on their balance and Purnell is comfortable going nine deep with Stimage getting back to full health.
JD: How much more or less can we expect to see the three-point shot from a team who shoots 37 percent from beyond the arc going against one who tends to run a matchup zone during the game?
DS: DePaul's bread and butter is their inside-out approach to the game. With Robinson in the game, DePaul usually has five good shooters on the floor and that should not change. They really live and die by the three, as they don't get good, consistent production in the post.
The Demons do struggle against zone defenses, but they are doing a good job lately of getting Henry open in certain gaps in the zone and he can attack well of the bounce.
JD: Aside from Garrett and Jamee Crockett, (about whom Seton Hall fans would LOVE to forget) who else should fans keep an eye on, and why?
DS: Well, I discussed Henry and he will certainly be an x-factor. Who I haven't talked about yet is Tommy Hamilton.
Hamilton is currently in the doghouse. He was already suspended one game (vs. Marquette) for a violation of team rules and he has not done much since his return. Hamilton has not been getting much more than 10-15 minutes a game lately, even though he is DePaul's fourth leading scorer and leading rebounder.
Hamilton has a wealth of talent and if he can apply himself, he can make a difference. Maybe he'll bring his A-game on Thursday. He forces things many times, but he has great hands and can get good position in the paint.
JD: Finally, how much longer will the balloon be inflated for DePaul? Can the Blue Demons survive February and early March to remain in the top half of the Big East standings?
DS: Well, DePaul has had it good with the schedule so far, as the teams they have beat in conference (Xavier, St. John's, Marquette and Creighton) are a combined 6-16. Then again, DePaul was the cellar dweller for eons, so it's great for DePaul not to be considered the dregs of the conference.
However, the fast start has allowed the Demons to regain some lost confidence after losing six straight games prior to conference play. But this is a team that has talent and is playing more like a team, while also believing in each other.
You should expect some form of regression, but it's still looking like this DePaul squad is a completely different team than in year's past. It's time the conference starts recognizing that.