DePaul's men's basketball team on the rebound | Feature | Chicago Reader

DePaul's men's basketball team on the rebound 

The once-successful Blue Demons helped transform DePaul from the little school under the el to the largest Catholic university in the country. Can DePaul now help the team recover some of its fading glory?

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As a group, the Blue Demons have worked to improve their half-court defense and defensive rebounding, two areas that killed them during Big East play a year ago. (Conference opponents made a robust 53.7 percent of their two-point shots against DePaul in 2011-'12.) The return of center Donnavan Kirk, an elite shot blocker who missed a large chunk of last season with a back injury, has helped fortify a thin front line. The team isn't a title contender yet; dropping winnable games at home to Gardner-Webb and Loyola-Chicago proved that. But through December, Purnell's squad is forcing more turnovers and snagging more rebounds than at any time since the new regime took over. And they're finally playing as a team, as evidenced by a seven-game win streak between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Says Young: "We learned how to play with each other. We're out there on the court talking to each other, and just playing the game the right way."

Because their conference schedule is so demanding, the Blue Demons will need a few lucky bounces to break the school's NCAA tournament drought. But it's undoubtedly a team goal. "I just want one," says Melvin. Purnell will settle for a modest improvement over last season's 12-19 mark. "Right now, what we're trying to do is to get up into the middle of the Big East," he says. "A middle-of-the-road team in the Big East has a chance to win the national championship."

Moving forward, the coaching staff needs to reconstruct its Public League-to-DePaul pipeline. They've already received a commitment for next year from four-star recruit Billy Garrett Jr., a big point guard out of Morgan Park High School. (Billy Garrett Sr. is a member of Purnell's staff.) Signing any one of four touted high school juniors to whom they've extended scholarship offers—Whitney Young's Paul White and Jahlil Okafor, Morgan Park's Josh Cunningham, or Curie's Cliff Alexander—would signal that the Demons' local image is changing.

Where they'll play and whom they'll play against are the other major questions hanging over the program. This past May, the university's board of trustees made explicit its desire to move home games back into Chicago. The board has already received overtures from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the agency that owns McCormick Place, to build a gym on the near-south side that would host the Blue Demons full-time. In late November, Crain's reported that the owners of the United Center—hoping to stave off competition for concert and convention business—have offered DePaul ten years of free rent, along with other perks, to play at the Bulls' home floor on West Madison Street. DePaul's current contract at the Allstate Arena runs through 2015.

The Big East's seven Catholic schools, meanwhile, are making plans this month to leave the conference entirely and start their own league, likely after the 2014 season. The conference's existing expansion plans, designed to maximize revenue from football, didn't appeal to DePaul and its basketball-focused peers, who would be forced to travel farther to play worse opponents. Purnell is "tremendously excited" about the stadium and conference realignment discussions. "They speak," he says, "to an exciting new era in DePaul basketball."

The loyal fans who organize DePaul's student section agree. Thomas Gutheil, a sophomore marketing major, says the die-hards are making T-shirts, papering the campus with flyers, and organizing barbecues in an effort to convince more students to ride up north for games. "If we even have one winning season," adds senior Dustin Ruttenberg, "that would be enough to generate some buzz."

Finding the next Mikan or Aguirre would help, too.

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