NEW YORK — On Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden, DePaul men’s basketball coach Dave Leitao sat in the press conference room after DePaul was knocked out in the first round of the Big East tournament. Answering in the same calm and measured way he does for most press conferences, he responded to the inevitable questions about the direction of the program.
“I feel really, really good about the direction of where we’re going and what we’re doing,” he said. “And I’m going to try to make some significant strides forward between this spring and next fall to put us in a much better position.”
DePaul fans are absolutely exhausted at the thought of “the process.” It’s seemingly what DePaul has been going through for the past decade or so as they attempt to get back to the NCAA tournament, much less the days of old.
So, year two of the Dave Leitao era. There’s not much to show for it. DePaul finished with the same amount of wins as they had in Leitao’s first year and basically did not give much reason to believe that the process is working. They’ll say goodbye to Billy Garrett Jr., who has been one of the most consistent players for them the past few seasons. Other than that, the future is very unknown.
“We’re at a very critical part in our history,” Leitao said. “We’re moving to a new arena. We have a lot of new things going on and it really means a new direction.”
Well it’s finally time to talk about the arena as a tangible object. It’s been a far-off endeavor signifying a new era for the past four years. With the Blue Demons’ loss last night, the future arrived.
I feel confident in saying that next year will be the most important year for DePaul men’s basketball since Rey Meyer retired. The opening of Wintrust Arena brings DePaul back into the city finally gives fans some new excitement going into next year. The problem is, the play on the court this season and last has not generated excitement or a lot of hope going forward. The arena will help, but only if they back it but by sustained progress on the court.
So, next year. Eli Cain, who showed some flashes of brilliance this season, will be a year older. Tre’Darius McCallum, who showed he could play, will be a senior. Max Strus and Austin Grandstaff will be eligible after sitting out this year due to transfer rules. High school teammates Jaylen Butz and Justin Roberts will come in as freshmen.
There are a lot of questions, though. Leitao played the same starting lineup all season with walk-on forward Joe Hanel and freshman guard Brandon Cyrus. Do they keep their starting spots next year, especially if Levi Cook is healthy and Strus is ready to play? Does Devin Gage or Justin Roberts, or someone else entirely take over Garrett’s position at point guard?
Leitao said he needs to make some significant strides forward this offseason, and that’s certainly true. This offseason will be an interesting one as DePaul still has a scholarship spot open to offer to a transfer or a late-signing recruit. There will be battles for multiple positions and it seems that only two people, based on on-court performance, have their starting spots for next year in Cain and McCallum. And these are questions that will be answered come next November.
Being in the middle of a rebuild, especially one that does not yield results in multiple seasons, is frustrating and it makes a long offseason longer, because the biggest question that needs to be answered cannot fully be answered until after Leitao’s third season: is DePaul making progress?
If, at the end of next season, DePaul shows marked improvement in their on-court performance then the process will feel vindicated. But as we sit here now at the end of another empty season, it’s hard to imagine that this same group can make significant strides forward after being manhandled by the Big East.
If, at the end of next season, DePaul does not show improvement, then the tenure of Dave Leitao should be looked at. He was a gamble of a hire and it needs to pay off to give DePaul the jolt in needs to be relevant in men’s college basketball again. It needs to pay off to stave off a fan base increasingly calling for his and athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto’s job, and it needs to pay off to make the city’s and university’s investment in Wintrust Arena worth it.
We’ll come back to that next March. For now, it’s time to watch other teams play in the tournament.