Night Line: A Win over Arizona State Shows Signs Of Life From DePaulPosted by BHayes on December 13th, 2012
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
The plight of long suffering Northwestern fans is no secret at this point, as the Wildcats have recently provided annual teases that, yes, this is finally the year for the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance. This epic drought should surely draw some empathy for Cats supporters, but they are not the only long-suffering Chicago college basketball fans. Across town, the DePaul Blue Demons have been slightly more frequent Tournament patrons, but have only made two appearances in the last two decades. This may make them March mainstays in the eyes of the Northwestern fan, but considering the program had made 13 of the 15 Tournaments before the drought, it must feel like anything but to the DePaul faithful. Recent years have been especially tough for the Blue Demons; their 11-79 Big East record over the past five seasons says all you need to know. An experienced nucleus, headed by juniors Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young, provided some hope that the 2012-13 season would see Oliver Purnell’s bunch make significant steps forward, and Wednesday’s beatdown of Arizona State did nothing to dispel that notion. For a program that has been mired in some dark, dark times, it is no exaggeration to say that this was the most significant Blue Demons victory in more than half a decade.
Back in 2010, Oliver Purnell’s decision to head to DePaul and the shores of Lake Michigan was met with a large degree of puzzlement within the college basketball community. Purnell had seemed comfortable at a Clemson program that was humming along rather nicely, having made three straight NCAA Tournaments. To leave that stability for a DePaul job that few viewed as a clear step up was a shock, and Purnell found a very bare cupboard in Chicago upon arrival. One thing that was in place for him at DePaul was the commitment of Young, and after Purnell secured a promise from the 6’8” forward Melvin in the late signing period, the cornerstones of the DePaul rebuild were in place.
Early returns this season were mixed, as the Blue Demons’ three early losses ranged from the understandable (Wichita State), to the less than satisfactory (Western Kentucky), to the unacceptable (Gardner-Webb). But DePaul entered Tempe tonight on a four-game winning streak, and this was before comprehensively defeating an Arizona State team that has looked fairly improved in its own right. As usual, Young (18 points, nine assists) and Melvin (12 points, 10 rebounds) paced the Blue Demons, who frustrated Arizona State star freshman Jahii Carson into a 5-of-16, six-turnover night in the 78-61 victory. An improved DePaul defensive effort has to be the source of any improvement, as the young Blue Demons often looked apathetic on that end of the floor a season ago. Tonight’s effort has to be considered a success on that front, and while it is early and the schedule has been soft, DePaul has drastically improved its field goal defense so far this year, going from 302nd nationally in effective FG% against a year ago to 74th this season.
The baby step that was the victory in Tempe tonight is nice and all, but the larger question surrounding the DePaul program is simple – can Purnell, or any other coach for that matter, bring back the glory days and reestablish the Blue Demons as a true Midwestern basketball power? The Blue Demons’ home court, dark and dingy Allstate Arena, is a 15-mile drive from their lakeside campus, and is most definitely not the modern, energetic hub of Chicago basketball that it was in the 80s. The facilities are in need of an upgrade, and with a decimated fan base that dwindles by the year, the continued erosion of a once brand-name program might seem inevitable. Year after year, as the top Chicago preps look outside the city for their college basketball homes, few bat an eye. DePaul basketball has become an afterthought.
It’s no easy gig, and seeking the success that the program experienced in the late 70s and 80s is probably unrealistic, but last I checked, DePaul is still in Chicago, a city that churns out loads of high school basketball talent on an annual basis. The school’s only true local competitor for talent is Northwestern, and despite the Wildcats recent string of… NIT berths, they are a long way from being recognized as an upper-echelon basketball program. Purnell has never won huge in any of his past stops, but he also has never failed to build a steady, successful program. To think this year’s team is close to respectability may be foolish, but if the Blue Demons can continue to take steps forward like the one it took tonight, it could buy Purnell enough time to build yet another solid program – one that DePaul fans have been waiting a long, long time for.