Is the Blue Demons competitive Big East start a turning of fortunes, or an aberration?
The City Game focuses coverage on the game of basketball at the amateur levels in and around the city of Chicago
By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
In 2015, Oliver Purnell led DePaul to a 5-2 start in Big East conference play. The Blue Demons lost 10 of their next 11 games that year to finish 6-12, and Purnell was dismissed following the season.
That remains DePaul’s best conference season since leaving Conference-USA in 2005 (Jerry Wainwright’s 2007-08 team also finished 6-12 in the previous iteration of the Big East).
DePaul’s 3-3 start this year (11-6 overall) could not be considered too high a water mark at most other school in the Big East, but after a decade of mediocrity, it is a welcome sign of life — the team’s recent two-game win streak was their first in conference play since 2015.
However, an embarrassing come-from-in-front home loss to Butler last Wednesday night dropped the Demons below .500. The athletic department still has the specter of a fan base that took their grievances out in a full-page newspaper ad last spring along with a former assistant coach with an ax to grind and court order of protection against him.
The clock might finally be ticking on sweeping changes, but can DePaul right the ship before falling any further?
Signs of Success to Come?
The team’s fortunes might finally be turning this season. DePaul’s road win over then No. 24-ranked St. John’s on January 12 was its first victory against a ranked team since 2016, and the Blue Demons followed it up with a second straight away victory over Seton Hall this past Saturday night, their first ever at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Sophomore forward Paul Reed (11/8/1, 1.2 blocks per game) is top-five in the conference in rebounding, offensive boards, blocks and PER; he anchors a sturdy front line along with Femi Olujobi.
Stagg product Max Strus is the sixth-best three-point shooter in the Big East, and junior Eli Cain is the first DePaul player in history with 1,400 points, 350 assists and 150 threes made.
A Bright History
DePaul had a respectable basketball history in place before Ray Meyer arrived on campus in 1942. The Blue Demons had a winning record in 16 of the 19 seasons before Meyer’s arrival. However, Meyer coincidentally got to Lincoln Park the same year as George Mikan and that changed everything.
- NCAA Tournament: Michigan St. Spartans vs. Bradley Braves — March 21, 1:45 pm (CBS)
The 6-10 freshman was not a seasoned athlete before he came to DePaul, but Meyer recognized the impact big men could have in a sport aimed at getting a round ball into a goal 10 feet off the ground. After an NIT championship in 1945, where Mikan scored 120 points in three games, Meyer and the Blue Demons were off and running.
From 1975 until Meyer’s retirement in 1984, the Demons recorded 215 wins against 51 losses and went to the NCAA tourney or NIT every year except one. They reached the Final Four in 1979 and were ranked No. 6 or higher in the AP poll five straight seasons.
In those days, DePaul was a destination for the best high school players in Chicagoland and across the country, highlighted by local talents Mark Aguirre (Westinghouse, top pick in the 1981 NBA Draft), Terry Cummings (Carver), Dave Corzine (Hersey), and Bill Robinzine (Phillips), as well as national prospects Rod Strickland and Tyrone Corbin. The success continued, to a limited degree, under Meyer’s son Joey, who coached the team from 1984 to 1997 and led them to 11 more postseason appearances, eight in the NCAA tournament.
Unfortunately, a 3-23 season predicated Joey Meyer’s firing, and DePaul’s most recent sustained success came in Dave Leitao’s first tenure; from 2002 to 2005, Leitao guided the Demons to a 58-34 record, two appearances in the NIT and a first-round win over Dayton in the 2004 NCAA tournament. Following Leitao’s hiring by Virginia in 2005, the Blue Demons have finished with a winning conference record only once.
Lack of Firepower
Last season, Myke Henry appeared in 20 games for the Memphis Grizzlies, averaging 5.4 points in 18.9 minutes per game. It was the NBA debut for the Orr High School grad after splitting parts of two seasons between the NBA G League and Mexico.
Why is this significant? Henry was the first DePaul University men’s basketball player to debut in the NBA since Wilson Chandler in 2007. This also makes Chandler the only former Blue Demon currently on an NBA roster.
Prior to Henry’s debut, Chandler was the lone DePaul grad in the NBA since 2013, when Quentin Richardson played one final game for the New York Knicks and Chandler continues to stand as the last DePaul player to be chosen in the NBA Draft.
When comparing the number of players drafted at DePaul in recent years to the fellow Big East schools, it’s obvious the Demons aren’t fielding the same level of talent.
Total Number of Big East Players Chosen in the NBA Draft Since 2007, Ranked by School (as of 2011 Conference Relaunch)
|Villanova||7 (last: 2018)|
|St. John’s||1 (2012)|
|Seton Hall||1 (2016)|
The mark of a strong college basketball program is the success of their former players, and under both Meyer Sr. and Jr., DePaul grads typically flourished in the NBA.
Since the BAA/NBA began play in 1947, DePaul basketball has had at least one player on an active NBA roster in all but six seasons. Of the 35 Blue Demons who’ve played in the Association, 13 were first-round draft picks, including Aguirre (No. 1 overall in 1981) and Cummings (No. 2 in 1982). That run of success ended, save for Chandler, in 2001, when Richardson and Bobby Simmons entered the league.
Off-court Court Troubles
Following an eleventh consecutive losing season, DePaul students and alumni bought a full-page ad in the Chicago Sun-Times. The ad, shown below, detailed DePaul’s recent run of futility and directed the blame at athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto.
Lenti Ponsetto was hired as AD in 2002, and hired Leitao for his first run as men’s basketball coach. However, the head coach has not been able to duplicate that moderate success in his second go-around, and his ignoble exits at Virginia and with the Maine Red Claws of the G-League have not inspired confidence in the Blue Demons faithful.
In addition, the university is still dealing with fallout over the dismissal of former associate head coach Rick Carter in 2017. According to DePaul’s student newspaper The DePaulia, both Leitao and Lenti Ponsetto requested emergency orders of protection against Carter after he allegedly harassed the head coach in person and via Twitter. The story also reports that Carter posted lyrics from Kanye West’s “Monster” on his Twitter account, which Leitao took to be threatening.
Last but not least, while the new Wintrust Arena has been a boon for fans of the Blue Demons, the WNBA’s Chicago Sky and local high schools, it was only four years ago that many Chicagoans were angry over the $55 million project, paid for mainly by tax-increment funds typically used to fund city infrastructure. The ill feelings have subsided, but if DePaul doesn’t regain a winning form, the stadium may forever remain a symbol of outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel’s heavily-scrutinized business practices.
Looking to the Future
Leitao’s typical rotation only runs seven players deep, meaning Strus, Cain, Reed, Olujobi and junior guard Devin Gage handle the majority of the scoring and defensive responsibility.
Recruiting will be a must for Leitao this coming off-season and beyond in order to build a lasting successful program at DePaul. The team isn’t senior-heavy but most of its contributions come from the senior trio of Strus, Cain and Olujobi.
Two four-star recruits have recently committed to the program, according to 247Sports — all-city guard Markese Jacobs of Uplift High School and 6-7 forward Romeo Weems from Michigan — but the Blue Demons will require at least one top-100 player in the next three years to show they’re on the path to reclaiming former brilliance.
A surprise win at No. 12 Marquette tonight, or a projection of the team’s current .500 play in conference (which would mean a 9-9 finish), would be as good a sign seen for this program in quite a while.
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR