Since joining the Big East in 2005, DePaul has enjoyed minimal success and has often played the role of cellar dweller in the massive 16-team (soon to be 17-team) conference. The Blue Demons did earn an NIT bid in 2007, but have yet to make the NCAA Tournament since transitioning from Conference USA to the aforementioned Big East conference. Upon casual glance, it is easy to dismiss DePaul as a hapless lightweight, but I am going to tell you why there is reason to be excited about this once proud program.
Head Coach Oliver Purnell will be the man to lead DePaul into the future. Purnell struggled in his first season at the school going 7-24 and only winning one conference game as he coached up an inexperienced team that featured few impact talents. With that being said, Oliver Purnell has the ability to turn this slumbering DePaul program around. He has guided Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson to NCAA tournament appearances. At Clemson in particular, Purnell showed the ability to sign high profile recruits and generate fan support at a school where football definitely took precedence over basketball.
After winning only one Big East game last season, the Blue Demons have nowhere to go but up as they enter the 2011-2012 campaign. Thankfully, DePaul figures to be much improved next season. The team will be led by sophomores Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young. Melvin was a former UConn commit and enjoyed tremendous success as a freshman, scoring 14.3 points per game and being named Big East rookie of the year. Young meanwhile proved to be a capable scoring guard as evidence by his 12.6 points per game, and appears to be a young talent that Purnell can build his backcourt around. Senior Jeremiah Kelly and junior Tony Freeland will also be counted ass integral contributors.
There is definitely young talent on the roster, but make no mistake that the Blue Demons need to recruit at a much higher level if they hope to consistently crack the top half of the Big East standings. One of the reasons why Oliver Purnell felt like a good fit for DePaul was because of his ability to recruit top talent. In his 15 months at the school, Purnell has already demonstrated an ability to attract top tier players to the Windy City.
His first major recruiting coup at the school was the signing of Shane Larkin. Larkin is a 5’11" guard out of Orlando, Florida and was rated the 72nd best player in the class of 2011 by Rivals. Shane also held scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida State and Boston College before ultimately signing with DePaul. In state signees Macari Brooks and Jamie Crockett are also solid pickups. Purnell’s ability to keep these two Illinois talents from leaving the borders (so to speak) is encouraging and bodes well for the future.
I want to make it clear that in no way am I suggesting that DePaul will be competing for an NCAA tournament bid next season. No, this team simply does not have enough quality talents to compete night in and night out in the Big East. This program is mired in the lowest tier of the conference hierarchy, and it will take hard work and perseverance on the part of the coaching staff and the players to pull this program out of the mud.
What I am suggesting is that there is definitely positive momentum surrounding DePaul even though that momentum has not resonated in the win-loss column yet. The program was stuck in neutral under ex head coach Jerry Wainwright. More than anything, DePaul needed a new direction and a shot of energy to right this flailing ship. The hiring of Purnell and the influx of talented youngsters such as Cleveland Melvin cures both of those needs.
The possibility for success at the school is definitely present. Fans in Chicago would definitely come out to support a big time college basketball program. Chicago is also a recruiting hotbed that regularly churns out some of the top talent in the country. That all sounds good, but the reality is that right now All-State Arena is far from featuring sellout crowds for Blue Demon home games (average attendance was 7,676 for home games last season and the arena sits 17,500). DePaul will also have to rebuild an image that has collected some dirt since the days of Ray Meyer, but as we know, that will all come with winning.
When Oliver Purnell spoke of his feelings about DePaul and the decision to leave a Clemson program that was on solid footing he spoke of the schools commitment to basketball.
"It's a super job,'' Purnell said. "They are very, very committed to restoring a tradition and make DePaul Chicago's team.''
As I said before there is reason to get excited about the program’s future, but it ultimately remains to be seen whether that commitment and desire will translate into long-term success.