DePaul Basketball: Blue Demons on the upswing?

DePaul basketball may be a real factor in the Big East in the near future.

When thinking of Big East bottom feeders, the DePaul Blue Demons seem to be the first program that comes to mind.

They haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2004.

They haven’t had a winning season since 2007.

And ever since they joined one of the best basketball conferences in the nation back in 2005-06, the Blue Demons have consistently struggled to compete in terms of recruiting, on-court success and facilities.

In the three years of the restructured Big East, the Blue Demons have finished 10th, 7th and 8th, and have failed to compete for a postseason appearance.

But the Blue Demons may not be part of the college basketball laughing stock any longer.

Head coach Dave Leitao, who was hired before last season, seems to be the perfect fit for the program due to his familiarity with the Midwest and his passion for Big East basketball.

In fact, Leitao was the head coach of the Blue Demons from 2002-05. In the Conference USA, Leitao led the program to two NIT appearances and their last berth in the NCAA Tournament (2004).

In his second stint, Leitao has dug his heels in on the recruiting trail, as DePaul has a solid 2016 class that consists of four three-star recruits. Levi Cook gives DePaul size at the center position, Al Eichelberger is undersized but offers versatility and toughness, Brandon Cyrus is a gem at the guard position, and Devin Gage is a playmaking point guard.

On Monday, DePaul landed a 2017 four-star point guard, Justin Roberts, and received a commitment from sharp shooter Austin Grandstaff, who could be eligible as soon as this season.

Roberts is 5’11”, but was receiving some interest from high major schools, while Grandstaff is a former top-100 recruit with a solid all-around game.

All these additions will add to the experience that DePaul already possesses.

Billy Garrett Jr. has only one season remaining, but his tutelage and ability to lead the young players will be especially valuable down the road. The Blue Demons also return Tommy Hamilton IV, Erten Gazi, R.J. Curington and Darrick Wood.

Most importantly, is the presence of rising sophomore Eli Cain. Although the shooting guard only averaged 10.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.8 assists last season, he took huge strides down the stretch, putting together some remarkable performances at the end of the year.

Cain scored double figures in seven of his final nine games, while unleashing 22 points on the road at Providence and taking over the second half in a game at St. John’s (25 points).

The New Jersey native ended his freshman campaign with an inefficient 14-point performance, but Cain will be a force in the conference for the next three seasons.

In addition to the on-court additions, the Blue Demons are also building a new arena that is expected to be unveiled in 2017. The McCormick Place Event Center will hold 10,000 fans, costs $164 million, and offers 22 suites.

This is gem compared to DePaul’s current arena in Rosemont, which is rarely packed and never creates a hostile environment that recruits want to play in front of.

Incoming players can now be pleased with their home gym and can feel comfortable with the fact that the school has devoted a ton of money to improve the standing of the basketball team.

DePaul clearly has some talent (and that new arena), which in turn should make them more competitive, win some more games and then attract  more four-star recruits down the road.

But it isn’t easy to win based on just talent, especially at a program that isn’t used to recording records above .500. It’s one thing to say a program is on an upswing but it’s another to show it.

DePaul has to come together as a unit and build chemistry with their newcomers starting this season.

Garrett is not likely to see the NCAA Tournament (or even the NIT this year), however, if these young players can learn how to deal with adversity, learn how to close out tight games, and learn how to play on the road, DePaul will indeed find themselves in the “sleeper” category in the future.

With Leitao behind the wheel, I truly believe this program is headed in the proper direction.

Again, it’s not likely to happen this season but the results will show two-to-three, maybe even four years, down the road.