CHICAGO (AP) DePaul coach Doug Bruno has always had a simple offensive philosophy: share the ball until you find an open shot.
It’s worked well this season with his team averaging 19.8 assists per game – third best in the nation behind only unbeatens UConn and Notre Dame. That unselfishness on offense has gotten the Blue Demons into the Sweet 16 for the third time in school history.
It’s also provided the most entertaining game of the tournament so far, DePaul’s 104-100 victory Oklahoma in the opening round. The 204 combined points made it the highest-scoring regulation game in the history of the NCAA tournament.
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Now the Blue Demons face Texas A&M on Saturday with a chance to advance to the regional finals for the first time.
”It would mean a lot,” Bruno said. ”I think tournament play is really where teams and programs define themselves and we have defined ourselves at DePaul as a body of work. We are only one of nine teams that have gone to 12 straight NCAA tournaments. That puts us in an elite place. But how you do every year in the tournament still is what most recent young people playing the game are looking at.”
This season already has had a lot of firsts for DePaul. The school won its first Big East regular-season title and took the conference tournament, as well. Not bad for a squad that got off to a 4-3 start.
”At the beginning of the year I thought we could be good,” said Bruno, who won his 600th college game in a second-round upset of Duke on Monday night. ”After the first seven games we were struggling, but I believed we could turn it around. Every season has ups and downs, and you get to see teams develop or not develop in any given year. That’s what makes coaching fun.”
After the difficult start that saw DePaul lose to Notre Dame, Northwestern and Kentucky, the Blue Demons rattled off six straight victories. That run didn’t last, as DePaul split its first four conference games. Since then, it has come together for the Blue Demons and they have won 18 of their last 19 games, including the victory over No. 2 seed Duke.
”After those losses we really regrouped as a team and rebounded and defended as lot better throughout the season,” DePaul senior Jasmine Penny said. ”We also played a lot smarter.”
In the past with powerhouses Connecticut and Notre Dame in the Big East, the best DePaul did was tie for second and make the semifinals of the conference tournament. The Blue Demons were full of confidence after taking the conference titles this year.
”Winning the regular season and the Big East tournament gave us the momentum heading in the NCAA tournament that we have never had before,” Penny said.
The Blue Demons’ play this season has left an impression on Bruno’s longtime friend Geno Auriemma.
”When I watched Duke play DePaul, I just shook my head and said, `This DePaul team reminds me of my `91 team,” Auriemma said. ”They just play and they have a certain style about them that’s unique and fun to watch.”
That 1991 Connecticut squad was Auriemma’s first to reach the Final Four. For Bruno to have the same success with this team he’d have to potentially pull off a monumental upset in the regional finals and beat Auriemma’s undefeated Huskies
But first Bruno’s team will have to get by Texas A&M.
”We have to take it one game at a time,” Bruno said. ”That’s what we’ve been doing all season.”
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg