DePaul’s slow crawl back to respectability has not been an easy one for head coach Oliver Purnell. After four-straight losing seasons under Purnell and six-straight last-place finishes in the Big East (including two seasons under previous coach Jerry Wainwright), DePaul is starting to put people on notice that they’ll be nobody’s pushovers any more.
While the Blue Demons did lose to Xavier, 89-76, on Saturday (after leading by eight at halftime), it’s high time we start recognizing DePaul as team turning the corner. At 5-3 in the Big East heading into Sunday’s games, DePaul now finds themselves in fourth place and one game out of first place. Suffice to say, that’s a huge jump from where they once were.
DePaul was considered a laughingstock and it’s hard to argue with being 70-151 over the last seven years and an even woefully worse 16-110 in Big East during that time. People mocked and laughed. Heck, SB Nation has a “Did DePaul Win?” page dedicated to DePaul’s struggles.
It was hard being a DePaul fan.
Engulfed in a losing culture, Purnell had a difficult assignment in turning things around at DePaul. It started off terribly for Purnell, as in his first four seasons with the Blue Demons, the team showed no signs of any true, palpable progress. They won no more than 12 games in any season and no more than three Big East games in any year under Purnell. That’s why DePaul’s 5-3 start in Big East play has to be taken seriously and as a sign that they are doormats no more.
While DePaul lost to Xavier on Saturday, prior to that DePaul was coming off a benchmark win for the program. For the first time in seven years (which spanned 51 games), DePaul knocked off a ranked team when they beat no. 24 Seton Hall 64-60 on Thursday night. It was the first time they beat a ranked team since an 84-76 win over no.17 Villanova on January 3, 2008. It was also DePaul’s first road win over a top-25 team since beating No.16 Wake Forest, 84-81, in Winston-Salem on December 13, 2005.
After the win over the Pirates, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard was very complimentary of DePaul.
“You have to give (DePaul credit),” said Willard after the game. “It’s tough to swallow, but you have to give them a lot of credit. Oliver has done an unbelievable job with this team and he deserves a ton of credit.”
Some skeptics will point to the fact that DePaul is having a bad season given how it did in the non-conference schedule. True, the Blue Demons did indeed struggle, going 6-7 in non-conference play. They dropped their last six games prior to conference play and lost some head-scratchers to Ohio and Loyola Marymount. Oddly enough, one of their non-conference wins was over Stanford, which appears poised to make the NCAA Tournament at 13-5 and ranked no. 35 according to KenPom.com.
It was a fact not lost on Doug Gottlieb, who had this to tweet after DePaul’s win over Seton Hall:
When DePaul is in first place, your league isn’t any good
— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) January 23, 2015
Gottlieb’s criticism is unwarranted, presumptuous and unfair as the Big East is no. 2 in RPIRatings.com and every team in the conference has proven to be a hard out (KenPom.com has seven teams in the top-50). Although it took a while for DePaul to find it’s groove, it used the beginning of conference play to serve as a clean slate. The Blue Demons should be judged on how they are playing in the present. And playing in this present-day incarnation of the Big East is not easy, despite what some “national” pundit may say.
One of DePaul’s calling cards is its ability to spread the wealth as four players are averaging double figures in scoring.
Sophomore point guard Billy Garrett Jr. continues to be the heart and soul of the club. His poise, skill, basketball IQ and calm demeanor fuels the club. He is known for his clutch shooting and ability to attack the rim and get fouled. He is second on the team with 13 points per game while leading the team in assists (3.7 apg) and free-throw percentage (.851, which is fourth in the Big East).
Illinois transfer Myke Henry is also coming on strong in his first season with the Demons. He leads the team in scoring (13.3 ppg) and is second on the team in rebounding (5.7 rpg) and is DePaul’s most effective inside-out player. Henry can attack the rim with reckless abandon and shoot well from the perimeter (.377 percent from three-point range). In his last four games, Henry is averaging 15.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
DePaul also gets double-digit scoring production from senior Jamee Crockett (10.6 ppg) and Tommy Hamilton (10.9 ppg).
All told, DePaul can shoot the ball as they rank first in the Big East in three-point field goals made per game (8.2) and three-point field goal percentage (.365). It also ranks second in free-throw percentage (.741). So, the Demons have the ingredients for a winning formula.
Getting back to Purnell, as I said prior, he was tasked with a tough job. But that (rebuilding programs) has been his specialty coming to DePaul. He built programs at Radford, Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson and left them better off after he departed. Prior to leaving for DePaul, Clemson had gone to the NCAA tournament the previous three seasons under Purnell. Only North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski had a better winning percentage in ACC play than Purnell did in his last four seasons at Clemson.
So, while the process has been excruciatingly slow, the Demons are now enjoying some eagerly-awaited redemption.
Now, with all that has been said, DePaul still has a hill to climb if it wants to get postseason consideration (that includes the NIT). Considering they are 11-10 with an RPI of 131 according to KenPom.com, the Blue Demons have to finish with a an above-average mark in Big East play (say at least 11 wins). That may be too tall a task to accomplish.
Still, the fact that they are in the thick of the Big East race and do own four top-50 wins (Stanford, Xavier, Seton Hall and St. John’s), well, that shows you it’s getting much better for the gang from Chicago.
Speaking of Chicago, DePaul is set to return to the city in 2017 with a new arena set to open in the South Loop. DePaul currently plays at the All-State Arena, which is in the suburb of Rosemont and is a 20-minutes drive (with no traffic) from its Lincoln Park campus.
With a compact, cozy arena (which will hold approximately 10,000 people), DePaul will have a unique, state-of-the-art place in Chicago to call its own. With the way the Demons are playing plus selling the idea of playing in a shiny new arena, DePaul could begin to have some pull with more high-profile recruits.
While we’re not talking about world-beaters with DePaul, we are talking about earning respect after many tumultuous years of futility. Although they’re baby steps, they are huge steps nonetheless for this program. This is not the same DePaul team you’ve grown accustomed to knowing.
Better get used to it.
Quotes were obtained firsthand