If you are under the age of 30, you probably don’t remember it. You don’t remember Ray Meyer. You don’t remember Dallas Comegys. You don’t remember Mark Aguirre. You don’t remember Tyrone Corbin. You probably don’t even remember Terry Cummings. In short, you don’t remember when the DePaul Blue Demons were a national powerhouse independent who won 180 games in seven years (25.7 per season) and went to the 1979 Final Four.
From 1976 to 1992, DePaul won 20 games no less than 14 times. In the three seasons from 1980 to 1982, DePaul lost two games per season, going 79-6, despite never matching its Final Four run from ’79. Even in more modern times, the Blue Demons were decent, going 20-14 as recently as 2006-07. But DePaul has only been in the NCAA Tournament twice in the last 22 years and it won’t return this season, finishing the year 12-21 after an 84-62 loss to Creighton (25-6) in Thursday’s Big East Tournament quarterfinals. DePaul was down by 20 at halftime and its 29 points were only two more than Creighton senior Doug McDermott scored for the first 20 minutes. McDermott finished with 35 points. Brandon Young led DePaul with 22.
Believe it or not, the 12 wins this year match DePaul’s best total for the last seven seasons. Sure, it’s a different world for the Blue Demons being in the Big East now, even the new smaller version of the Big East, than it was back in the independent days when DePaul could pick out its own schedule. Not that it picked cupcakes. The old matchups of the early 1980s between DePaul and Georgetown, for example, were as much appointment television as any non-conference game could be in that day. It seemed DePaul was on the old NBC Game of the Week every Saturday afternoon.
For DePaul to have fallen so far, to have only won 70 games in seven years, it is unacceptable. Yes, the college basketball landscape is different. Given all the top programs across the country and how everyone gets TV exposure now (whether they deserve it or not), it’s impossible for DePaul to individually own recruiting in Chicago. And that goal gets harder with every season that the Blue Demons struggle. After this, head coach Oliver Purnell‘s fourth season, the Blue Demons have gone 42-85 with Purnell at the helm. Keep in mind, however, that Purnell is no slouch. His coaching record prior to coming to DePaul was 394-281. Purnell is one of the few coaches in the country to have been named Coach of the Year in three different conferences.
The record states Purnell isn’t the man, however, to turn DePaul around. In a small sample, he did win his first game in the Big East Tournament on Wednesday, when the Blue Demons knocked off Georgetown. But there haven’t been many signs that DePaul is on the brink of once again getting back to .500, let alone national relevance. Forget national prominence, that’s several years out.
But the job of reconstructing DePaul basketball has to start sooner rather than later. College basketball is a better game when teams like DePaul, St. John’s, Georgetown and Villanova are good — I mean really good. There’s something special about having schools representing the big cities be involved in the national conversation, rather than just at outposts like Lawrence, Kan., Durham, N.C., and of late, Wichita, Kan. Villanova (28-4) is doing its part, despite Thursday’s shocking loss to Seton Hall, St. John’s has already won 20 games this season, while Georgetown (17-14) struggled this season but has won at least 20 games seven of the last nine years.
And then, there’s DePaul. The city school that the modern era of college basketball forgot. Surrounded by fertile recruiting ground, in a conference with a major TV deal (Fox Sports 1), the Blue Demons just need someone to right the ship. Guys like Shaka Smart at VCU and Gregg Marshall at Wichita State are far beyond DePaul’s reach now. But given the number of rising mid-major powers in various conferences that seem to be having more and more impact come March in recent years, DePaul has to set its eye on one, give that coach the facilities and trust (and money) required to take five years and build the program.
There’s no reason DePaul can’t win and be successful. Most notably, there’s no excuse for DePaul not to be better.