Forty years after his mother, then known as Debbie Brinkman, began what would be a Hall of Fame volleyball career at DePaul University, Max Strus is planning to take the court for the first time as a member of the Blue Demons men's basketball team later this year.
And he plans to do whatever is necessary to help bring winning basketball back to a program that during his mom's college years was the toast of the town.
Strus, who grew up in Hickory Hills and was a standout player at Stagg High School – was the Regional-Reporters’ 2014 Boys Basketball Player of the Year and is finishing his first year at DePaul after transferring to the Chicago school from Division II Lewis University. After redshirting his junior season, per NCAA transfer rules, the 6-6, 217-pound guard is excited to get back on the hardwood.
“I can't wait,” Strus said. “I mean, it's going to be different than the opponents we had at Lewis, but I'm ready to go to that next level and play against those high-level teams.”
Those teams will include fellow Big East members Villanova, Xavier, Butler and Marquette, just to name four of the seven conference squads that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season. DePaul finished the 2016-17 campaign 9-23, and 2-16 in conference play, but Strus sees brighter days ahead for the Blue Demons
“Obviously, we had a rough year last year,” he said. “Hopefully [those schools] can think about DePaul next year or the year after that. I want to leave a big mark at DePaul like I did at Lewis.”
Strus earned myriad accolades during his two years at Lewis, among them Great Lakes Valley Conference Freshman of the Year, and being named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-American Team as a sophomore. He averaged 20.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a sophomore, and that season set the Flyers' single-game (52 points) and season (666 points) scoring marks.
Strus' success gave him the confidence he could play at a higher level, and Lewis granted him his request to be released from his scholarship. Pac-12 power Oregon – which was coming off a run to the Elite Eight in the 2016 NCAA Tournament – and perennial Big East title contenders Xavier and Butler were among the schools that inquired about Strus' services, but he chose to say close to home.
The opportunity to be a big part of rebuilding a program was a major factor in Strus going to DePaul. He also built a strong relationship with Blue Demons assistant coach Fred Carter, who sold him on the program and head coach Dave Leitao. He also doesn't mind that DePaul will begin playing in the fall at the new Wintrust Arena, which is under construction near McCormick Place.
“We're trying to get back to where DePaul's been in the past,” he said. “I really believed in them and they believed in me, and we want to turn this program around.”
Strus' mom, Brinkman, was at DePaul from 1977-81, and Blue Demons men's basketball was in the late 1970s and early 1980s among the most popular and successful teams in Chicago.
Led by coach Ray Meyer and future NBA stars including Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings, DePaul advanced to the Final Four in 1979 and earned Regional No. 1 seeds the following three seasons. Between 1976 and 1992, the Demons qualified for the NCAA Tournament 14 times; however, they have not had a winning season since 2007.
Strus admitted being relegated to the role of observer as his team struggled last season was challenging.
“It's hard to sit out when you want to get out there and help your teammates,” he said. “It's extremely difficult. After having a year like I had at Lewis and then coming here and having to sit out and watch games, and not being able to play…I had a hard time with it.”
But those days are over, Strus added, and he is now as focused as ever on improving every aspect of his game, and playing basketball again. While no one is looking for him to be any sort of savior, he doesn't mind the pressure of being counted on to lead and carry a team.
“If I have to be 'the guy,' you know, I'll be that guy, but everybody wants to be the guy, of course,” he said. “I just want to win, ultimately we all just want to win, so I'm going to do whatever it takes to help the team. Whether that's defense, rebounding, scoring; whatever they want me to do I'm going to do to the best of my ability. I'm just looking forward to actually playing in a game this year and getting back on the court.”
Can he replicate what he did his sophomore year at Lewis?
“If I could do that again I'd be very happy,” he said. “I'm hoping I can keep playing like I did at Lewis, keep doing what I was doing and be that guy again; so, we'll see what happens.”