College Sports

TELANDER: Wintrust Arena isn’t helping DePaul win any games, gain any trust

For those of us who have visited recently opened Wintrust Arena, DePaul’s new home basketball court near McCormick Place, we can agree it’s a lovely building, a fine, glassy venue filled with wide concourses and cushioned blue seats.

But you still have to ask: What does it have to do with DePaul’s main campus about 7 miles to the north?

There are nearly 15,000 undergraduate students at DePaul — most of them studying business, science and computing — and another 8,000 grad students studying everything from law to music. Some are commuters, but a lot live near DePaul on the North Side.

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The Blue Demons are in their first season at Wintrust Arena in the near South Loop.
| James Foster/For the Sun-Times

While students used to jam into tiny, antique Alumni Hall on Belden Avenue on campus, they were less inclined to head out to the Rosemont Horizon after the team starting playing there in 1980. Suburban Rosemont had as much to do with DePaul as a parking lot has to do with Wrigley Field.

So now the Blue Demons have Wintrust Arena, in the near South Loop, where conventioneers abound but students not so much. Does any of it matter?

This could be the fundamental question for much of big-time college sports these days, where top-tier interschool competition seems to be designed for the entertainment of visitors and high-rolling strangers more than the supposed peers of the athletes themselves. Who else are the 22 state-of-the-art Wintrust suites made for?  Certainly not Jimmy and Janie, I-took-out-a-fortune-in-loans-to-go-to-DePaul kids.

Nor should we forget that in 2012, DePaul was offered rent-free use of the United Center for basketball for 10 years. Or that Wintrust Arena cost more than $170 million, with $103 million coming from your public funding — i.e., bonds and taxes.

The new arena hasn’t helped the Blue Demons’ fortunes. They’re 9-13 overall and 2-8 in the Big East, with a home game tonight against Creighton.

If the new court isn’t as convenient as an on-campus site, where students could walk to games, it’s at least supposed to give the Blue Demons a competitive advantage. Legendary DePaul coach Ray Meyer once told me that Alumni Hall, where players inbounding the ball from the sideline had to virtually stand on spectators’ feet, was worth about seven points per game. In this initial season, the Blue Demons are 0-6 in conference play on their home court.

The problem at DePaul might be reflected in the fortunes of many Catholic, non-football, non-state universities that were once basketball powers. You don’t see Loyola or La Salle or St. Joe’s near the top of the charts anymore. Nor do you see other private, smaller schools such as Bradley or Drake or Fordham up there.

The one-and-done rule adopted by the NBA a dozen years ago changed much. High school superstars are going to state schools dominated by big-name coaches who have no problem sending the phenoms to the pros after minimal — sometimes fraudulent — schooling.

Then, too, the good old days at DePaul — back when the Blue Demons went to 20 NCAA Tournaments in the 53 years of the Ray Meyer-Joey Meyer fiefdom — have been gone for more than a quarter-century, fading away until Joey was fired in 1997 after going 3-23.

People point to homegrown talent the Blue Demons once had, stars such as Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings, Quentin Richardson, even George Mikan. Suffice it to say that Mikan died at age 80, 13 years ago, and Aguirre is 58. Olden days, folks.

Maybe it’s a sign of a financially troubled city and state that’s at work here. Or maybe it’s a lack of interest, reputation, good coaches or recruiting in the state. The Blue Demons lost their grip on a four-star point guard who committed to them in May. Tyger Campbell of La Lumiere School in La Porte, Indiana, reopened his recruitment in September and announced his commitment to UCLA on Tuesday.

Wintrust Arena’s website says the facility was built as a multipurpose venue to be “part of a redevelopment plan to transform the surrounding neighborhood into a vibrant entertainment district.’’

That’s great for McCormick Place and tourists and, maybe, the coffers of the city of Chicago. But does it translate to anything wonderful for DePaul hoops?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But that 43-179 record in 13 seasons in the Big East and the 14 years without an NCAA bid weigh heavily.

Here’s hoping this shiny new bauble helps what’s broken.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com