Michigan’s reigning Mr. Basketball is helping to wake up a Chicago sleeping giant.
Though the DePaul Blue Demons have seemingly hit the snooze button to start 2020, there are signs Romeo Weems is sparking a real revival for Chicago’s biggest college basketball program.
The former New Haven star also checks crucial boxes with the three magic words for NBA wings: Three and D.
Weems might be hitting a midseason freshman wall, but his 2019 success elevated him up mock NBA Draft boards.
“I feel like there’s a lot of learning, but it’s fun though,” Weems said Thursday. “Of course the NBA is where everybody wants to be. That motivates me. If my name is on there now, it’s probably not that high.”
His name is rising though, much like his ascending program after many years of obscurity.
It’s been decades since coach Ray Meyer had the Blue Demons among the nation’s best programs, attracting top Chicago talent like former Pistons Bad Boy Mark Aguirre, who would lead DePaul to the 1979 Final Four.
Aguirre's pro career ended in 1994 though, seven years before Weems was born. In recent times, DePaul has been an afterthought, eventually moving to the Big East to become the storied league’s doormat.
But the program moved in 2017 to Wintrust Arena, shiny new mini-NBA digs in South Loop, a huge step up from playing in Rosemont prior to that. There, players and students would fight about an hour’s worth of Chicago traffic from the Lincoln Park campus to play and — mostly not — attend games at Allstate Arena.
Now a Red Line L-train ride away from campus and downtown, DePaul has lively crowds and an exciting basketball team to boot.
After starting 12-1 and beating regional rival Northwestern 83-78 on Dec. 21, DePaul’s awakening was one of the big non-conference stories in the sport.
“At this point in time, I’ll take it, it’s been really good,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. “The university, and the community, and the city has embraced it, which is kind of what we thought and knew what would happen because of our past. Now that we’re drawing attention to ourselves, it becomes more difficult to build on it, maintain it and grow into something that we believe will be very successful this year, next year and years beyond.”
DePaul (12-4) is trying to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 and was very nearly ranked for the first time since 2000.
However, the Blue Demons lost 74-67 on Saturday to St. Johns in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and since the Northwestern win, have lost all three games to start the Big East season.
Weems was scoreless Saturday and played just 13 minutes because of foul trouble. The 6-foot-7 freshman came into Big East season averaging 8.7 points per game but is netting 4.0 points per conference game.
“There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs and a lot of adversity, but me and my teammates and the coaching staff are taking it day by day,” Weems said. “Try to get better every day. Working really hard, trying to figure everything out.”
Weems was a DePaul starter from day one and made a name first for himself defensively, as fellow NBA prospect Paul Reed and experienced guards Charlie Moore and Jalen Coleman-Lands supplied the bulk of the scoring.
“I feel like that’s what I am. My defense is who I am,” Weems said. “I don’t feel like it was my focus, I feel like it just happened like that. I feel like I’m a competitor, I work hard.”
His offense has been tantalizing though, knocking down 41.4 percent of his 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 17 points in a November win at Boston College.
With efficient play, Weems is showing he deserves whatever piece of DePaul’s scoring pie lands on his plate, which could increase as the Blue Demons try to get back on track.
“I think that’s a little bit of a hard thing, for a young guy especially, to do because he knows there’s some weapons out there that he may not be, as he’s always been, a primary option,” Leitao said. “But at the same time, he as an option is a good one. There’s trust because he puts himself in the right position.”
DePaul was a curious choice for Weems, especially as Michigan and Michigan State were among his suitors. Weems was Michigan’s 39th Mr. Basketball and 26 of them moved on to Ann Arbor or East Lansing.
“Romeo, by virtue of being an independent person and an independent thinker in high school and here in college, chose to go against the grain in his decision making, and the way he goes about his business,” Leitao said. “That different mentality, people probably disagree with or challenge. But it’s gotten him in a really, really good place now as a freshman and it will as he continues his career here.
“And futuristically, he’s going to play this game for a long period of time and I think by and large, a lot of it was because he didn’t succumb to somebody else’s thought process about who he should be, what he should do, where he should go. He was going to make an independent decision for himself.”
Weems is trying to lift the DePaul program like he did at New Haven, where he helped the Rockets to their first state championship in 2017 as a sophomore. He later became Macomb County’s first Mr. Basketball.
He could be DePaul’s first drafted player since Benton Harbor’s Wilson Chandler was selected 23rd by the New York Knicks in 2007. Chandler also chose DePaul after winning Michigan’s Mr. Basketball in 2005.
“I’m trying to be a lottery pick one day maybe, or first round, so I’m just going to keep playing no matter what people think,” Weems said. "Just keep playing.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.