DePaul again tries to defy expectations
Take a look at the Big East preseason coaches' poll and there is DePaul right at the bottom.
Big shocker, huh?
Well, no one said turning it around would be easy, and the Blue Demons are in a familiar spot heading into Year 2 under Oliver Purnell. With four straight losing seasons and just two conference wins over the past three years, expectations once again are low for a once-proud program.
''We don't worry about that,'' guard Brandon Young said. ''That motivates us. That makes us get in the gym, work harder every day. We want to prove them wrong, so why not just work hard and see how the season's going to turn out?''
Here's how it turned out last season.
The Blue Demons went 7-23 overall and 1-17 in the conference, hardly a surprise, but as bad as it seemed, there were some bright spots for a program trying to dig its way up from the bottom.
Forwards Cleveland Melvin and Moses Morgan along with Young contributed as freshmen - particularly Melvin and Young. Top 3-point shooter Jeremiah Kelly is back for his senior season, and the Blue Demons also have a better understanding of Purnell and what he wants to do, which is to run. And run some more.
''A lot of people on the team are more comfortable, definitely me - I'm more comfortable with the team,'' said Melvin, who averaged 14.3 points and was Big East Rookie of the Year last season. ''I'm kind of being a role model to the younger guys and stepping up, being a leader on the court.''
On a team with just two seniors, he qualifies as an elder statesman. More than that, though, he's a major building block for a program that last had a winning record in 2006-07.
The same goes for Young, the point guard who averaged 12.6 points and made the all-rookie team.
The Blue Demons are counting on them, particularly since they are a bit thin at the moment. They lost junior Tony Freeland for the season because of a shoulder injury and three incoming freshmen for medical or academic reasons.
Shane Larkin decided to stay closer to home in Orlando, Fla., because of a medical condition and did not enroll. Macari Brooks left school because of an academic issue, and Montray Clemons is out for the season after rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee during warmups at the ''Blue Madness'' event.
''It certainly doesn't change our outlook, our expectations or our goals any,'' Purnell said. ''We can't afford to lose anymore. I feel like we have 10 guys that we can push in and out of the rotation, and that's fine.''
Melvin showed up with a few new wrinkles. He spent the offseason working on his ballhandling and shooting, hoping to take advantage of some potential mismatches. With his quickness and size, Purnell believes the 6-foot-8 Melvin could create some major headaches for opponents.
''They're going to scout him and if he's just all around the basket, it's going to make it tough on him,'' Purnell said. ''His ability to move around makes him harder to guard, and now he can utilize what are his strengths - quickness, speed, explosiveness. He can use those out in space a lot more than just hanging around the basket.''
The Blue Demons got a taste of it on a summer trip to France.
They played four games, got in some extra practices and, they believe, got another leg up heading into this season.
''A lot of things have happened since even the end of the season,'' Purnell said. ''The chance to go to France and get 20 practices under our belt, play four games, getting to know a new group of guys - six new faces. That's pretty significant. Certainly more athletic, that's obvious. I think we'll be a faster team. Certainly, very excited about the possibilities of increasing our pressure, things that we can do with our pressure defense. Looking forward to being a better running team. I think what that translates into is a more exciting brand of basketball.''
Melvin said, ''We've got a great team bond and chemistry, more of a team bond. The freshmen, they listen to us. Me and Brandon and J.K., we're kind of the leaders to the freshmen.''
How far can they go, though?
Purnell is no stranger to turnarounds, orchestrating several in a career that includes stops at Clemson, Dayton, Old Dominion and Radford. Fixing DePaul is no small task.
For all the turmoil in the Big East, with Syracuse and Pittsburgh heading to the ACC and West Virginia to the Big 12, this still remains arguably the toughest basketball conference in the nation. The climb is a steep one for the Blue Demons.
They took a few small steps late last season with close losses to Louisville, Cincinnati and Villanova, but a huge gap remains.
For Young, the goal is simple if not easy - have a winning season.
''Try to make it as far as you can,'' he said. ''If that's going to the tournament or the NIT, that's a big accomplishment for us from having a losing season.''
The regular season begins at home Nov. 11 against Texas-Pan American.