Big East-leading DePaul is enjoying ride from worst to first
Forrest Robinson smiled and raised his arms after the clock struck zeroes on DePaul’s latest victory. A few of his teammates exchanged high-fives and the coaches slapped a few backs.
No one would have been surprised if the Blue Demons had been even more demonstrative in their celebration. Their three-game win streak to start Big East play is a major accomplishment for the Chicago school’s long-suffering men’s basketball program.
That’s right, DePaul (9-7, 3-0) is in first place after home wins over Marquette and Xavier and its 10-point road win over Creighton on Wednesday. How long the Blue Demons stay there is anyone’s guess. A trip to eighth-ranked Villanova is coming on Saturday.
For now, they’re a long way from last place — where they’ve been entrenched for six years and where they were picked to finish this season, too.
”We’ve won three games,” point guard Billy Garrett said. ”At the end of the day, it’s only three games.”
Those three wins match last season’s total in conference play. The Blue Demons haven’t won four or more Big East games since 2007-08. They entered this season having gone 10-98 in the conference over six years — the worst league record by a Division I team in that time, according to STATS.
Coach Oliver Purnell built winners at Radford, Old Dominion, Dayton and Clemson before arriving at DePaul in 2010. The Blue Demons represented the turnaround artist’s biggest challenge. He inherited a team that had was 1-35 in the Big East the previous two years, and he’s faced the hardships of recruiting against Illinois and blue-blood programs that come in and take the Windy City’s best high-school talent.
Purnell’s lack of progress through four years landed him at or near the top of pundits’ preseason hot-seat lists.
”We’ve won three in a row. We’ve gone on the road and won. It’s coming at the right time to give us a gauge,” Purnell said after Wednesday’s win at Creighton, looking ahead to Villanova. ”We’re going in with the idea we can win the game just like we came in here with the idea we can win the game if we do certain things.”
DePaul basketball has a proud tradition. George Mikan and the Blue Demons played to sellout crowds at Chicago Stadium in the 1940s, and Mark Aguirre along with longtime coach Ray Meier were the toasts of the town in the late 1970s and early `80s.
As the program has declined, so has fan interest. Average crowds of 5,939 at All-State Arena are down nearly 10 percent from last season and 44 percent from 2006-07. The Blue Demons move into a new 10,000-seat arena in 2016.
Purnell said he likes his personnel. He brought in Myke Henry, a transfer from Illinois who leads the team with 13.4 points a game, and Aaron Simpson, a junior-college transfer who joined the starting lineup three games ago.
Garrett, the 2014 Big East rookie of the year, is scoring 13.1 points a game. Robinson has made 10 3-pointers and scored 37 points the last two games. Jamee Crockett is scoring 11.9 points, and the 6-foot-11 Tommy Hamilton comes off the bench to average 12.3 points and a team-best 6.9 rebounds.
It looked like it would be the same old, same old for DePaul when it followed wins in six of its first seven games with six straight losses heading into Big East play.
”We were 6-1 and we weren’t as good as we probably thought we were,” Purnell said. ”When we were 0-6 we probably weren’t as bad as we thought we were.”
The last three of those six losses in a row came at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. The Blue Demons returned to the mainland with their heads up.
”We kind of looked at the Big East as a new beginning for us,” Garrett said. ”Nothing we did prior to our first Big East game against Marquette really mattered to us. We won our six out of seven and then we lost six straight. Now we’re 0-0 in Big East. That’s the way we looked at it. It’s worked out for us so far. So we started out 3-0 and we have to keep it going.”