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DePaul-Marquette not what it used to be, but both programs improving

DePaul is 8-18 overall and 2-12 in the Big East in Dave Leitao’s first season. | Getty Images

BY DAN McGRATH

For the Sun-Times

Marquette-DePaul used to be a highlight of the winter calendar for aficionados of local college hoops. The game Saturday, played before 8,524 mostly gold-clad fans at Allstate Arena, failed to revive that tradition. Billy Garrett Jr.’s doing?

DePaul’s junior point guard was on the bench in street clothes, idled by a leg injury suffered Wednesday against St. John’s. Backup forward Peter Ryckbosch was alongside him, resting a sore knee. The Blue Demons are offensively challenged on their best days, averaging a Big East-low 65.6 points. Without Garrett, they were stagnant for long stretches of a 73-60 loss.

‘‘Obviously, you miss a guy with his experience at the most important position on the floor,’’ DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. ‘‘Marquette had lost three of four, and they were playing for their basketball lives. I told the guys we were going to get their best punch, undermanned or not, and we’d better be ready for it.’’

Clearly, DePaul wasn’t. The Demons had more turnovers (12) than buckets (nine) in a drearily played first half, but Marquette was caught up in the malaise and only led by 11. The Golden Eagles then made six of their first seven second-half shots in a 13-4 spurt to open a 20-point lead. Game over.

‘‘Basketball, as in life, is next man up,’’ Leitao said. ‘‘This was an opportunity for some guys to step up. We did not have enough guys who were ready to be better versions of themselves. That’s what it would have taken.’’

DePaul is 8-18 overall and 2-12 in the Big East in Leitao’s first season as the replacement for Oliver Purnell. It wasn’t evident Saturday, but he is an improvement.

Purnell was 57 when he was hired, and amid the usual blather about his history as a program-builder was concern that he’d come to DePaul for his retirement job. Maybe not, but there was little evidence of total engagement as the Demons went 54-105 overall and 15-75 in the Big East in his

five seasons.

If the coach wasn’t mailing it in, his players were — all too frequently, anyway. It was time for a change, but nothing too drastic. DePaul dipped into its past in choosing Leitao, and though he was the last coach to take the Demons to the NCAA tournament, he wasn’t hailed as a returning hero.

He’s 55, for starters, and predecessors Purnell and Jerry Wainwright had given borderline geezerhood a bad name in Lincoln Park.

But Leitao had shown he could win at DePaul. The Demons were 58-34 overall and 30-18 in Conference USA in his previous three-season tenure, when his coaching rivals included Rick Pitino at Louisville, John Calipari at Memphis, Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and Tom Crean at Marquette.

He’s trying to make do with Purnell’s players. And while the results suggest more of the sorry same, there has been a noticeable upswing in defensive effort and competitiveness.

Steve Wojciechowski, in his second season at Marquette, can relate. The longtime Dookie was 13-19 in his debut season with the tattered remnants of Buzz Williams’ roster, but the rotation this season features four freshmen and a sophomore, all of them Wojo recruits. They accounted for 47 of the Eagles’ 73 points, with freshman guard Haanif Cheatham flipping in 20.

‘‘We have three guys on our team who have played a full college season,’’ Wojciechowski said. ‘‘Freshmen played 106 of 200 minutes today, on the road, in the Big East. Consistency has been our biggest challenge, but they’re learning, and it’s coming.’’

The best of the kids is Henry Ellenson, a 6-11, 245-pound freshman with shooting-guard skills in a power forward’s body. Ellenson was Marquette’s most significant signee since Dwyane Wade and leads the Eagles in scoring (16.6), rebounding (10.0) and minutes played (33.3).

But the downside to signing McDonald’s All-Americans is that they seldom stick around long enough for their fries to get cold. Some NBA scouts look at Ellenson and see Dirk Nowitzki. How long he’ll remain in Milwaukee is anyone’s guess.

Ellenson would like to burnish his résumé with an NCAA tournament appearance, but it’s problematic right now. Marquette (17-10, 6-8) has negated quality victories against Wisconsin, Arizona State and LSU with puzzling home losses to Belmont, Butler and DePaul and will need a big finish in the Big East and a credible run in the conference tournament to reach the proverbial bubble.

It seems only a matter of time.