DePaul’s path back to success

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DePaul’s path back to success

Mairead Kahn | The DePaulia

Mairead Kahn | The DePaulia

Mairead Kahn | The DePaulia

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If you build it, they will come.

In more than one way, that headline is what the DePaul Athletic Department hoped would happen when they invested millions of dollars into the new 10,387-seat Wintrust Arena. On Tuesday afternoon the arena was the site of DePaul’s annual Tipoff Luncheon ahead of the real tipoff to the Blue Demon’s 2018-2019 basketball season against Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 7.

Wintrust Arena is supposed to do a lot of things for the university. It’s supposed to improve recruiting with its state-of-the-art design. It’s supposed to improve attendance as students no longer need to embark on a pilgrimage across Chicago to watch their team play at Allstate Arena. Ultimately, the Blue Demons built Wintrust Arena because it was a step in accomplishing the program’s most important goal.

 

“I really just want to put DePaul back on the map,” Blue Demon star Max Strus said. “It’s as simple as that. When people talk about DePaul basketball, it’s negative right now. I don’t want to hear that anymore. I’m sick of it, and I just want DePaul to be in a positive realm and for everybody to know DePaul’s back and to put it back on the map.”

In the infant stages of its existence, Wintrust Arena has begun to pay dividends in the recruiting department just like DePaul envisioned. With Romeo Weems (ESPN No. 46 recruit in class of 2019), Markese Jacobs (ESPN No. 84 recruit in class of 2019), and do-everything guard Oscar Lopez Jr. verbally committed to DePaul, the Blue Demons have quietly cobbled together a formidable recruiting class in 2019. In fact, 247sports.com ranks it as the 14th finest in the country. “I think people are starting to feel what we feel about what’s going to happen and what is transpiring right now,” Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao said.

The boost in recruiting success isn’t completely the Wintrust Arena effect, but having a sparkling new arena to show off to recruits certainly isn’t hurting matters.

“Aw man, it’s an incredible arena,” Lopez Jr. said after he committed in early October. “It’s one year old, it’s a brand new arena. They took me on a tour around it. It’s an unbelievable arena to be in and to play in. So I can’t wait.”

But as the recruiting gods smile upon DePaul basketball, the attendance gods continue to smite the Blue Demons with a trident. Anybody in attendance at Wintrust last season could attest to the overall emptiness of the arena, as a DePaulia investigation into the attendance numbers hammered home this point.

Other factors contribute as well, chiefly the fact that Wintrust Arena resides almost seven miles away from DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus where most of its students make their home. But perhaps the biggest element missing from Wintrust last season that contributed to its low attendance was winning.

“Unfortunately, we get dictated by wins and losses and that’s the last piece of what will change. But I’m very confident.””

— Dave Leitao, DePaul head coach

DePaul’s recent dismal athletic history has been well documented. No NCAA tournament appearances since the 2003- 2004 season. No winning record since the 2006-2007 season. The Blue Demons finished last or second to last in the Big East Conference the last three seasons and in nine of the last 10 seasons. Fans don’t want to watch a losing product, especially when the product is almost seven miles from their warm beds on a chilly January school night. DePaul is looking to change all of that because while Wintrust Arena is now a completed project, the Blue Demons fittingly aren’t done with their building projects.

“That word is so overused, ‘process’, but the process to get to where we are right now has been long and arduous and not full of rewards that the outside world can see,” Leitao said. “But it’s been a building process. The one thing we’ve all been working towards is continuity in our locker room. We are trying to build that kind of camaraderie and chemistry with good people within our locker room that can sustain itself not only through the highs and lows of this year but years ahead. This environment allows good people who are motivated to flourish. [Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto] sets the bar in terms of the kind of people we should have and how they conduct themselves on a daily basis.”

“Unfortunately, we get dictated by wins and losses and that’s the last piece of what will change. But I’m very confident.” Last season, the wins and losses may have dictated the fan support at Wintrust Arena. Will that change this season? Unsurprisingly, optimism presided at both the DePaul Tipoff Luncheon on Tuesday and the Chicago college basketball tipoff luncheon last week. Leitao talked a lot about how his program has meticulously created a culture conducive to winning by filling it with good people. Now comes the most important and tangible part of the process.

“The last part of that is how we perform on the court this year because it makes everybody outside of [the program] understand what we’ve been up to the last three years,” Leitao said. “Once they do, then DePaul basketball is the same prideful phrase as it was in the 1940s.”

Because DePaul knows that if you win in it, they [fans] will come [to Wintrust Arena].