CHICAGO (AP) — No matter how much DePaul struggled in recent years, basketball coach Oliver Purnell can envision the Blue Demons winning the Big East.
In fact, he sees it happening this season.
“No one expects us to do much of anything in the Big East except for the people in this room,” Purnell said. “With the new group we’ve got … we feel like we can compete for the Big East championship.”
That would be quite a leap for a program that last made the NCAA tournament a decade ago and is coming off its seventh straight losing season.
The Blue Demons went 12-21 and finished last in the Big East at 3-15 a year ago. But Purnell insisted they’ll improve with conference Rookie of the Year Bill Garrett Jr. and the 6-foot-11 Tommy Hamilton IV leading the way.
“We came here to turn this program around, and I think now more than ever, we are prepared now with this group — talented young men, outstanding character and leadership — to run downhill,” Purnell said.
That’s the problem. It’s been downhill for DePaul for most of the past decade.
Here are some things to look for this season, starting with the opener against the University of Illinois-Chicago on Nov. 14:
READY TO RISE: The once-proud program that Hall of Fame coach Ray Meyer led to prominence has not made the NCAA tournament since 2004. It’s most recent winning season was when it made the NIT in 2007 under former coach Jerry Wainwright, and it’s been in a free fall ever since.
Purnell, who orchestrated turnarounds at Dayton and Clemson, just can’t seem to open the parachute. He’s 42-85 and 9-63 in the Big East as he enters his fifth season.
Last year ended with a 12-21 record and 3-15 mark in a revamped conference after star forward Cleveland Melvin was dismissed by the school for unspecified reasons. The Blue Demons will have to replace Brandon Young, who averaged 16.3 points.
“I feel like at this point last year, we weren’t nearly where we were at this point this year,” Garrett said. “I feel like we have a more professional approach. Guys are locked in, guys are focused. It’s just a different feel.”
GARRETT’S BACK: A year ago, Garrett led Big East freshmen in scoring (12.4 points per game), assists (93) and free-throw percentage (82.5). The Blue Demons will need more this season.
“I feel like if I can take what I learned last year and apply it to this year, I feel like we’ll be OK,” said Garrett, a Chicago-area product and the son of a Blue Demons assistant.
ARENA UPDATE: DePaul remains on track to move into a new 10,000 seat arena on the near South Side in the 2016-17 season. Until then, the Blue Demons will continue to play most of their home games at Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont, as they have since 1980.
The new arena is a joint project between the city, the school and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.
LEANER, MEANER?: The 6-foot-11 Hamilton, who averaged 7.7 points and 4.8 rebounds as a freshman, has a different look this season. He has dropped more than 30 pounds after weighing 287 when he joined the program, according to Purnell.
“(He) is in outstanding shape and so far is having an outstanding practice season,” Purnell said.
NEW FACES: DePaul will have three transfers available at the start of the season — forward Myke Henry (Illinois), guard Aaron Simpson (Lincoln College in Illinois), guard Darrick Wood (Hutchinson Community College in Kansas). Henry, who spent his first two years at Illinois, is available after sitting out last season. Simpson comes with a reputation as a high scorer after averaging 23 points for Lincoln. Forward Rashaun Stimage, who transferred from Daytona State in Florida, could miss the first two months with a broken bone in his left foot.