With 30 years of basketball competition, road trips and recruiting war stories at his disposal, there’s essentially nothing DePaul women’s coach Doug Bruno would be stumped to solve in terms of using his roster. Big, tall, lean or mean, the Blue Demons get it figured out, to the tune of reaching the past 12 NCAA Tournaments.
So when last year’s team began to take shape, and Bruno saw that shape was not very tall, he went all in with a five-guard attack that could have been described as The Beautiful Game. The Blue Demons averaged almost 20 assists per game with a mere 12.4 turnovers per outing, a startling number given the trends in modern basketball and the fact DePaul plays at a furious pace.
Ace distributor Brittany Hrynko, an honorable mention All-American and top-20 WNBA draft choice last spring, is no longer around, but three key starters are back, and the Blue Demon machine is looking as stable as ever.
“We played with five guards – the good news is guard play is huge, and that’s how you win basketball games. You can never have too many, but the bad news was, we had a definite lack of size,” said Bruno, whose team lost to Notre Dame in the second round of last season’s NCAA Tournament but was 27-8 overall and the winner of consecutive Big East titles.
“Defensive field goal percentage is something many coaches care a lot about and justifiably so. But for us, to force the pace of play the way we want, we’re going to give up some easier baskets from time to time. We choose to push the ball, and I think we play very good defense, but that number is just not where we will look our best.”
“We’re a smart team – we show it in the classroom, and that’s something that translates to the court,” said Megan Podkowa, who was the Most Outstanding Player in the 2015 Big East Tournament. “Coach emphasizes sharing the ball and being organized. It’s awesome to play for a coach who has so much wisdom and knowledge. He’s been teaching and coaching all over the world. This is a rare chance to see the game through his perspective.”
That view has taken Bruno around the world, either running U.S. national teams of various types or working on the staffs that send U.S. Olympians into the international fray, including the 2016 Olympics coming up in Brazil. He’s headed the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (he was the second male coach to do so), was part of the first professional women’s league in the late 1970’s, and as mentioned, has a long career in the collegiate arena.
“This whole career is about players and relationships. I’ve had a good administration to work with, terrific assistant coaches, and special players and people on the team,” Bruno said. “Looking back, probably what I’m proud of is we achieved what we have in five different leagues. And our non-conference schedule is (tough); I go to bed at night knowing there’s no fabrication of our record because of the competitiveness of who we’ve played.
“Of course I think there should be more opportunities, but the issue goes deeper than just the number of opportunities. The issue is the marketplace, and the lack of coverage of women’s sports in general. They say there’s 2 to 4 percent of the coverage on women, and 4 percent is on the outside at best. We need media support, for the marketplace to grow.”
From the DePaul perspective, Bruno’s hard-earned insights on strategy are like precious stones – his coaching holds value over time and make his players look good in most every circumstance.
“It’s definitely an honor,” said Jessica January, a junior who started all 35 games last year and averaged 11.6 points per game, to go with 77 steals. “It’s something that makes it easier when you are going through those hard practices and tough stretches. You know he always has your best interests at heart.”
“He has a lot of wisdom, and I have the utmost respect for him. You can trust that what he’s telling us to do is the right thing,” added Chanise Jenkins, who averaged 12.4 points per game and earned a spot on the preseason all-Big East team. “We can be looking at film, and he’ll point out something, and I’ll think, ‘I just wouldn’t have seen it that way.’ You just have to believe in him, and what he knows is something you can really buy into.”
The Blue Demons will lean heavily on Podkowa, Jenkins and January, who echoed their coach in saying no one was tasked individually with replacing Hrynko. Two sophomores are expected to get extended looks on the floor – Mart’e Grays and Ashton Millender both played in 31 games as a freshman, with Grays earning all-Big East Freshmen team honors. Brooke Schulte, now a junior, was a key asset when the team experienced some injury issues in January, and junior center Brandi Harvey-Carr does give the team some size down low.
“We haven’t talked about (replacing Hrynko) like that; we’re more seeing it as developing our team. We’ve got numerous freshmen, transfers, people who didn’t play a lot last year, and we want to see how they can fill those roles,” Jenkins said. “We’ve been able to plug the pieces together. We have a certain chemistry, and we expect our teammates to be there (for the pass). We are small, but Coach talks to us about being junkyard dogs. We’re capable of rebounding – we just have to do it.”
And there will be no trashing of DePaul’s reputation as a D-I force with Bruno standing nearby.