DePaul's men's basketball team began its season with seven-foot freshman Steven Hunter easily winning the opening tip over his undersized counterpart from Howard. He batted the ball forward to Quentin Richardson, who handed off to point guard Rashon Burno cutting down the left sideline. Hunter, meanwhile, used a pick set by DePaul's other forward, Bobby Simmons, to free himself down the right sideline. He is thin as a rail, listed at a generous 215 pounds in the team's media guide, and with his uniform flapping and fluttering around his wispy frame he went up like some true Blue Demon and jammed an easy alley-oop pass from Burno. The play had been designed by coach Pat Kennedy to get his star freshman out of the blocks, and it worked so well--"Oooooh!" went the crowd of 5,224 at Alumni Hall--it inspired the team to score the first 21 points of the game.
Howard may not be topflight competition--it won only two games last season--but 21-0 is still 21-0. DePaul had made the instant impression that it is going to be a lot of fun to watch this season; more than that, it could be very, very good.
One measure of DePaul's improvement is that Hunter, who gives the team much-needed height at center, might not even be the best new acquisition. Last year DePaul revitalized itself by restocking from the Public League across the front line--the freshmen Richardson from Whitney Young, Simmons from Simeon, and burly Lance Williams (out the first month of this season with an injury) from Julian--and also adding short but talented out-of-state point guard Burno. This year the Blue Demons brought in Hunter from Proviso East; a taller, fiercer point guard, George Baker, from Kentucky; and local outside sharpshooters Joe Tulley from Rockford and Randy Ramsey from Riverside. With all that freshman talent added to last year's freshman foundation, junior-college transfer Paul McPherson, a South Shore High School grad who starred last year at Kennedy-King, kind of got lost in the preseason hype. But a rock-solid, 6-foot-4, 210-pound guy with a 45-inch vertical leap wasn't likely to stay lost for long.
Kennedy set up that first play in the season opener two weeks ago so Hunter could announce his arrival. McPherson didn't need to be set up. He was everywhere, tussling for rebounds under the basket, running the floor on the fast break, at one point scoring on a high-speed slam dunk that left him hanging from the rim stretched out horizontal, like a mail drop made by an express train. This was the last men's basketball game to be played at Alumni Hall, an angular, intimate arena on DePaul's north-side campus, with bleachers built up into the corners and the roof cinched low over the floor like a corset, and there were times when McPherson seemed to graze that ceiling on his way to the basket. Howard coach Kirk Saulny said after the 105-61 final (and after announcing to the media, "We surrender") that he had been content to let Richardson stay on the perimeter and shoot three-point shots, but he knew right away he had no answer for McPherson.
"He's a beast!" Richardson said, clearly pleased that the team had been handed such a complementary tool. As Kennedy pointed out, McPherson's broad shoulders and sheer muscular size allow him to create space near the basket, so he can use his leaping ability where other high-flying guards cannot. This means that even though Richardson--a gifted player and one of the top college talents in the country after passing up the NBA draft last summer to return to DePaul for his sophomore year--is listed at forward and McPherson at guard in the starting lineup, McPherson can play more of a small forward and Richardson more of a shooting guard (where he'll probably play in the pros) giving teams that lack the oxymoronic benefit of a tall small forward anguishing matchup difficulties.
McPherson's qualities are also important because, for all their talent, the threesome of Hunter, Richardson, and Simmons has to be the most mild-mannered front line in college basketball. Hunter looks like a freshman--sometimes like a freshman at sea in a calculus course. Simmons is an efficient, unflashy power forward--perhaps my favorite player on the team--who does everything soundly but is rarely roused. And Richardson's most impressive quality--and remember, this is a player with the seemingly innate skills to shoot threes, drive to the basket, pass selflessly, play sound defense, and display a keen sense for the ball on rebounds--might be his workmanlike demeanor on the floor. For all their size and skills, until Williams comes back and probably even after that, they need someone with a little muscle and a willingness to mix it up inside. McPherson is that player, instantly the most demonstrative member of the team.
Howard rallied against DePaul's bench, and at 36-24 midway through the first half threatened to make a game of it. So the starters returned and stretched the lead out again. Richardson deposited a breakaway dunk as if it were a check in the night depository. Then he deked left, right, spun, and lofted a lovely lay-in. Simmons made a brisk pass up the right sideline to Richardson, and a Howard player trying for the steal got his hands on the ball just as Richardson caught it. Richardson turned, practically hurling the Howard player out of bounds, and calmly sank a three-pointer. It was 58-33 at intermission, and the second half was show time. At one point DePaul had a three-on-one fast break, but Baker's alley-oop pass to Richardson was blocked by the lone Howard defender. Kerry Hartfield, a starter on last year's team, plucked the ball out of the air and tossed it blind over his shoulder to Richardson under the basket. The layup pushed the lead to 88-48.
Suddenly DePaul, which won only three games under Joey Meyer a mere three years ago and seven games in Kennedy's first season the year after, has almost more talent than Kennedy knows what to do with. Yet even with McPherson working to establish himself on a team of younger stars, the Demons don't seem to need more than one ball. Kennedy pointed to the 30 assists after the game and said, "This is the most unselfish team I've ever coached." It's telling that upperclassmen like Hartfield and Ayinde Avery have accepted new positions as role players, and equally impressive was the way Simmons, the lone starter out on the floor, shepherded the bench players home in the final minutes. He distributed the ball like a big brother, passing low to an open Brian Cashin for a layup, then wide to Ramsey for a three, DePaul's final points of the night.
Yet it was, after all, only Howard. DePaul got its first real test of the season last weekend when the Demons traveled to Puerto Rico for a Thanksgiving tournament. They won the opener over the local American University team in convincing fashion, but then ran afoul of a bigger, more experienced Texas team in the semifinals. Even against Howard, Kennedy had expressed concern about the interior defense, and Texas's seven-footer Chris Mihm dominated the spindly Hunter. On defense, the Longhorns used varying zones to confound DePaul in the first half. Richardson scored 27 points, but Simmons didn't get involved until the second half and McPherson--who might be the key to the team this season--never got going. DePaul struggled back but lost, 68-64. Still, the 18th-ranked Demons rebounded to beat South Carolina in the consolation game, and the 20th-ranked Longhorns upended number-three Michigan State in the championship in what probably was not really an upset, making DePaul's loss to underrated Texas look better.
What makes DePaul so interesting right now is that the pieces are in place for this to be one of the best college basketball teams in the country. Richardson is a joy to watch night in, night out, but Simmons is equally sound on the fundamentals; like many of his young teammates he's a powerful player when he isn't being tentative. If Hunter settles into the offensive role of running the floor like a ghost and hitting the odd turnaround jump shot, he'll be dangerous, and when Williams comes back Hunter should be able to poach more on defense and block more shots. If the kids go soft, Kennedy can go to the seniors Hartfield and Avery--he says the team has seven starters right now, eight when Williams returns--and if the 5-7 Burno proves a liability against bigger point guards, Kennedy can bring the 6-3 Baker off the bench. Once Tulley and Ramsey get comfortable, they should provide outside shooting that helps keep opponents out of packed-in zone defenses. McPherson, of course, is the beastly x factor; he can grab hold of a game all by himself and excite a crowd with his soaring dunks. If the underclassmen mature and the players find their interlocking roles and the whole team adjusts to the high-pressure tactics of top competition, the Final Four is not out of the question this year. And if Richardson were to return for his junior year (unfortunately, not likely), they'd be bona fide title contenders next year. For now, by the time March Madness rolls around they might be able to beat the Bulls--that is, if they can't already.