(AP) – The DePaul-James Madison opener in Louisville matches strength against strength.
The high-powered Blue Demons expect to be tested by the 11th-seeded Dukes and their stingy defense when they meet Friday.
No. 20 DePaul (25-8) is coming off a third straight Big East regular-season title and is making a 14th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s not about to take James Madison (27-5) lightly.
”You can take the 6 and 11 (seeds) and throw it out the window,” said DePaul’s Doug Bruno, who was named the Big East Coach of the Year. ”We’re a 29 RPI, they’re a 31 RPI. … They’ve won 20 in a row for a reason.”
The Dukes haven’t lost since their Colonial Athletic Association opener against William & Mary on Jan. 3. They overcame the preseason loss of Precious Hall, last season’s CAA Player of the Year, with a knee injury to win the conference regular season and tournament titles for the third straight year.
Jazmon Gwathmey stepped up in Hall’s absence, averaging a league-best 20.7 points to earn CAA Player of the Year honors. She was also named the Most Outstanding Player of the conference tournament while Angela “Muff” Mickens and Ashley Perez joined her on the all-tournament team.
“James Madison is a big and athletic team,” Bruno told DePaul’s official website. “They have three go-to players led by Jazmon Gwathmey, a really special player who will play at the next level.
“Their point guard Angela Mickens runs the team and they have a two guard in Ashley Perez, who lit up West Virginia for 33 points this season with (seven) 3-pointers. This is going to be a big challenge for our team.”
DePaul, though, also is led by the top player from its conference in Chanise Jenkins, who became the second straight Blue Demon to be named the Big East Player of the Year.
The 5-foot-5 senior, who averages 14.9 points, had plenty of company from her teammates on the all-conference team, as Megan Podkowa (14.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Jessica January (13.5 ppg, 6.0 apg) also were recognized.
Led by those three, the Blue Demons, winners of 13 of 15, ranked seventh in the nation with an average of 81.0 points.
The Dukes have only reached that mark four times during their winning streak, as they focus more on defense and rebounding. Second in the nation in rebounding with 46.5 per game, James Madison limited each of its previous five opponents to 50 points or less. DePaul’s fewest points this season were 60.
The Dukes, however, don’t anticipate being able to shut down the Blue Demons and are preparing for an up-tempo game.
”Welcome to the track meet,” said Mickens, who averages 11.0 points and a conference-best 6.9 assists.
In the only previous meeting, DePaul won 89-75 in January 1999 in Chicago.
The winner will face Louisville or Central Arkansas for a chance to reach the Sweet 16.