ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) — DePaul’s improvement is evident.
The Blue Demons have come a long way since Oliver Purnell took over as head coach before last season. It’s just that they’re not yet ready to challenge teams like top-ranked Syracuse.
“I’m not happy with anything right now. We just got beat by 20,” Purnell said after an 87-68 loss to the Orange on Sunday. “We’re making progress. We got better athletes. Obviously we got a few more wins at this point than we had last year.”
DePaul just didn’t have a game-long response to Syracuse’s suffocating 2-3 zone or the Orange’s ability to drive right through DePaul’s defenders for easy baskets.
Cleveland Melvin showed why he is one of the young stars of the Big East with 23 points, but for most of the game the Blue Demons found themselves either trying to get open or avoiding the long arms of 7-foot Fab Melo on the inside. And once they missed or lost the ball, it led to fastbreak baskets for the Orange.
“They’re just long and athletic in that 2-3 zone,” Melvin said. “We all have to get back on defense. That’s how they were getting those fast and quick breaks.”
Kris Joseph, scoreless in his previous game, a victory over Seton Hall to open Big East play, had 22 points for Syracuse (15-0, 2-0). C.J. Fair added 16 points, Dion Waiters had 13 and Melo scored 12 points to go with six blocks as the Orange showed their depth and balance.
Syracuse opened 18-0 last season and the Orange’s best start under coach Jim Boeheim was 19 straight wins to kick off 1999-2000.
“We got a lot of difficult games ahead, particularly at the end of the year and those are the teams you have to beat,” Boeheim said. “We haven’t proven anything yet. We’ve beaten people we probably should have beaten. That’s good. … But the tough part of our schedule is coming up.”
But no matter the opponent, they will have to contend with a team that loses little when it substitutes, one that shares the ball and plays that confining 2-3 zone defense.
DePaul (9-4, 0-1) had its five-game winning streak snapped and dropped to 3-18 all-time facing No. 1-ranked teams.
“They’re as good defensively as any Syracuse team I’ve seen,” Purnell said. “They shot too many layups. … Every time we tried to make a move, it was a turnover that led to a layup.”
Boeheim said it will take time for the Blue Demons to establish themselves as a contender in a league that is so consistently talented from year to year.
“They’re a much better team,” he said. “It takes time to get back. You can’t do it in a year or two. It takes three or four years at least to compete in this league. You can’t rely on freshmen. You saw our freshmen. If we had to rely on them, we’d be 7-7.”
Syracuse held DePaul to 30.8 percent shooting in the first half — 0 for 8 on 3-pointers — and blocked five shots, three by Melo. The Orange shot 65.5 percent and had a 19-9 rebounding edge in opening a 45-26 lead.
Playing its first game since Dec. 21, DePaul chopped the lead to 16 midway through the second half but could never make a serious run. When Melo’s block led a runout and Syracuse pushed the lead to 85-57 with about 4 minutes left, some of the crowd at the Allstate Arena started to head for the exits.
“He blocked some and he altered some,” Boeheim said of Melo. “He’s very good in the paint, he’s gotten better, obviously one of the most improved players I’ve seen in a long time. And he affects the game.”
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