By Jim Weber
DePaul basketball has been a sleeping giant for so long it could officially be declared a coma.
The program of George Mikan, Ray Meyer, Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings and Rod Strickland that has reached two Final Fours and was a college basketball power in the 1970s and ’80s has only been to the NCAA tournament twice in the last two decades.
The Blue Demons have turned into a train wreck in recent years, winning a total of seven Big East regular season games in the last five years combined. At 11-16 overall and 2-12 in the Big East this season, the Blue Demons are enduring another miserable year. And these results come from a coach in his third year, Oliver Purnell, who is being paid $1.8 million per season. That’s more money than the likes of North Carolina’s Roy Williams ($1.7M) and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim ($1.5M).
Yes, it’s time to taking a wrecking ball to a once-proud program. Here’s my blueprint for the Blue Demons to rise from the ashes:
#1: Hire Someone Who Can Recruit Chicago
This is an absolute no-brainer and the most important part of a DePaul revival. And yet, Blue Demons athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto completely blew it off with the 2010 hiring of Purnell, who was already on the hot seat at Clemsonin 2010.
Locals called Lenti Ponsetto on her mistake immediately. Said AAU coach Mike Irvin told ESPN at the time: “I’ve been CEO of the [Mac Irvin] Fire for the past five years. I’ve been at my father’s side for the last 15 years assisting him with the team. I’ve never seen [Purnell]. I’ve never seen a Clemson coach. That’s bad, because in Chicago it’s about the relationships, the ties. Chicago’s a different animal, a different city.
“The mistake that Jean Lenti Ponsetto keeps making is she gets coaches who can’t recruit Chicago.”
Sure enough, Purnell has routinely failed to land players from the Windy City despite being located in the heart of it. Of DePaul’s 15 players on the roster, only four are from the Chicago area. Only one of those, Jamee Crockett, is an actual contributor. DePaul’s best players, Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin, were both second-tier recruits from Baltimore in Purnell’s old recruiting wheelhouse along the Atlantic Coast. Purnell has recruited Rivals’ No. 118 overall recruit Billy Garrett out of Chicago for next year, but it’s far too little, too late.
If I were Lenti Ponsetto, my top candidates to replace Purnell would be Reggie Theus, Bryce Drew and Orlando Antigua. I don’t think Lenti Ponsetto could go wrong with any of those three.
Theus is a former Chicago Bulls star who was wildly successful at New Mexico State from 2005-07 before jumping at the Sacramento Kings job. Currently stuck in the D-League with the Los Angeles D-Fenders, he’s got the same good looks and charm of Steve Lavin, who has been a recruiting fiend at St. John’s. Passed over at DePaul for Purnell in 2010, there’s no reason to believe Theus wouldn’t still love the opportunity to get back into college basketball. Plus, playing old “Hang Time” clips during games would be awesome.
Best known for “The Shot” in the 1998 tournament, Drew has proven himself to be one of the best young coaches in the game in two short years coaching his alma mater of Valparaiso. A candidate for the Mississippi State opening last year, Drew has been a solid recruiter in Indiana and Illinois. Located just 60 miles from Chicago, Drew knows the area. If he proves to have a fraction of the recruiting prowess of his brother Scott at Baylor, Drew would be wildly successful at DePaul.
You may never of heard of Antigua but there’s a reason this John Calipari disciple at Kentucky was named the top assistant coach under 40 by ESPN last year. The man can flat-out recruit, as evidenced by helping to haul in blue chippers like Anthony Davis (a Chicago native) and Nerlens Noel, among the many other one-and-done phenoms to come through Lexington. Having been at Coach Cal’s side for five seasons, Antigua is overdue for his own head coaching job.
#2: Get a New Arena ASAP
Allstate Arenas has and always will be a dump. It’s not close to campus, looks like an old shopping mall on the outside and is rotting away on the inside. We ranked it the worst BCS conference arena in college hoops and one reviewer on Yelp aptly described it as a “hot mess.”
There has been talk about building a new arena that doubles as DePaul’s home gym and a practice facility for the Chicago Bulls near the school’s Lincoln Park campus. It’s even received support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel. (Getting rid of DePaul’s hideous logo since 1999 wouldn’t hurt either.)
If hiring a new coach is Priority No. 1, a new arena should be No. 1A, 2 and 3 for Lenti Ponsetto. A new home for the basketball team would make a world of difference for recruits and attendance while generating an excitement for DePaul basketball that hasn’t been seen in three decades.
#3: Play Games at the United Center
There’s nothing DePaul can do about Allstate Arena in the short term. But the Blue Demons could follow the likes of Villanova and St. John’s, get out of their run-down home arena as play as often as possible at the United Center – like the Wildcats do at Wells Fargo Arena and the Johnnies at Madison Square Garden.
Every high school basketball player in Chicago dreams of playing at the home of the Bulls and The House That Michael Jordan Built. Yet the Blue Demons remain content playing their games in the shadow of O’Hare Airport in the Chicago suburbs instead of downtown. The United Center desperately wants DePaul to play all its home games there to avoid venue competition. If the Blue Demons can get a new arena near Lincoln Park, that doesn’t make sense. But playing weekend games at the United Center should would.
Sure, there would be a lot of empty seats at the United Center to start and it’s not much closer to DePaul’s campus than Allstate Arena. But it would at least be a fun experience for students, alumni and fans, rebuild DePaul as “Chicago’s team” and be a great recruiting tool. Even if a new on-campus arena is built, games at the United Center should be a permanent staple of the program for all the reasons above.
Given its location in a recruiting hotbed, money it’s already splurging on a coach and history as a basketball power, turning around DePaul’s basketball program shouldn’t be rocket science. Good luck telling that to Blue Demon fans amid nearly a decade of misery.