Lenti Ponsetto: ‘We haven’t arrived yet’

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Lenti Ponsetto: ‘We haven’t arrived yet’

Ally Zacek and Marlee Chlystek / The DePaulia

Ally Zacek and Marlee Chlystek / The DePaulia

Ally Zacek and Marlee Chlystek / The DePaulia

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DePaul’s men’s basketball program has seen brighter days. But now, for the first time in more than a decade, it can also look back on its darker ones.

The Blue Demons’ 2018-19 campaign ended an 11-year postseason drought with the program’s first winning season since Jerry Wainwright marched the 2006-07 team to the NIT quarterfinals. However, unlike Wainwright’s sole winning season at DePaul, the Blue Demons only managed a 7-11 record in conference play to finish last in the Big East for the third consecutive season.

A winning record is a sign of light in what has been a very long and dark tunnel, but the Blue Demons are still the runts of the Big East litter. Climbing up the rungs of the conference standings will be a priority next season as Head Coach Dave Leitao enters his fifth year back in Lincoln Park with what promises to be DePaul’s most talented roster in recent memory.

Now,  just over a month removed from the conclusion of a DePaul men’s basketball season highlighted by a run to the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) title game, The DePaulia sat down with Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto to get a sense of how she evaluates the state of Blue Demon Basketball.

“I think the growth was significant from the previous year to this year,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “But I think a lot of it had to do with the experience of the team. As a fan, when you are watching it’s always about wanting [to have] a winning program as fast as you can. But I think last year, we had a lot of players who didn’t have as much experience on the court.”

Lenti Ponsetto pointed to the emergence of players like Paul Reed, who showed flashes of talent in his freshman season but pushed his game to a whole new level in 2018-19. Reed, along with fellow sophomore Jaylen Butz, played with a level of poise and experience in DePaul’s front court this season that has been lacking in years past. Both more than doubled their points and rebound totals.

At the core of the roster was Eli Cain, DePaul’s only 4-year starter, and star transfer Max Strus. One of Leitao’s first tasks when he returned as head coach was to salvage what was left of Oliver Purnell’s recruiting efforts, including a young Cain, who spent most of his time at DePaul trying to get comfortable. Strus made an immediate impact once he was eligible to play after transferring from Lewis University, but often found himself the target of double teams in an effort to take him out of games. The senior duo led the team in scoring with 20.1 and 13.1 points per game for Strus and Cain, respectively, this season. 

“I think through various times through the season, different people had to step up and it shortened our bench pretty significantly,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “But I think the coaching staff did a really good [job] of maximizing the potential of the players we had on our team and getting people experience that would help put us in a position to hopefully have a postseason opportunity. That was one of our goals at the start of the season, having an opportunity to be in the postseason.”

DePaul met their goal of making a postseason tournament, but it wasn’t exactly where they wanted to end up. Even in the midst of celebrating a postseason berth, senior Max Strus expressed disappointment about falling short of an NIT bid. Still, fans, players and athletic directors alike looked positively on the experience.

“I think anytime you have an opportunity in men’s Division One basketball to participate in a postseason tournament is good,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “Again, that wasn’t what our young men and our coaching staff had set out to, but a lot of teams aspire to that and I don’t want to diminish the CBI experience, because I think it was a terrific experience.”

Logan Simios has been going to DePaul men’s basketball game since he was a little boy and has continued a half-century tradition of season tickets for men’s basketball games. Like Strus, Simios was disappointed the Blue Demons fell short of an NIT experience but reflected in the CBI tournament as a highlight in a dark era of DePaul basketball.

“I have to tell you, as a longtime DePaul fan, I really enjoyed the CBI run and I went to every game,” Simios said. “And again I felt that we could have on it all and won that last game [without the injuries to Cain and Jaylen Butz]—but I think the run was kind of fun for DePaul fans. We haven’t had any kind of a run for such a long time, and even though it was the third tournament, it was fun and fans got into it.”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the CBI tournament was the fan experience at McGrath-Phillips Arena. Forced to play on campus due to pre scheduled events at Wintrust Arena, the tight quarters created an endearing atmosphere and strong home court advantage for students and Blue Demons die-hards. Simios noted how impressed he was with the rarely rowdy student section—a reminder of what could be with an on-campus arena. Lenti Ponsetto agrees but pushed back on the comparison to Wintrut.

“Wintrust Arena has given us a tremendous advantage, the lower bowl at Wintrust, the noise, the numbers of seats we have sold at the lower bowl is really positive environment for our guys and they really enjoy [it],” Lenti Ponsetto said. “But you can’t beat when you come to play at a small gym like this and it’s your practice gym; there was a lot of energy and electricity, so they really enjoyed the experience. I think we all would have loved to have an on-campus facility, but that’s not in the cards.”

In the program’s second season at Wintrust Arena in the South Loop, attendance is still thin. After averaging less than 3,000 attendees during non-conference play in their first season, the 2018-19 non-conference slate saw an average of less than 1,300 fans. Five games welcomed less than 1,000 fans.

“It’s all about the scheduling,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “In terms of the non-conference scheduling, it’s about when you can get opponents to play you, being able to secure more Saturdays is great if you are able to do it because those are dates that really boost your fan attendance because those are days when fans most want to attend games.”

The quality of their opponents was also an issue this season; DePaul’s non-conference slate was full of smaller-name teams. The Blue Demons’ non-conference schedule ranked near the bottom, according to KenPom rankings, with teams like Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and Incarnate Word—all of which translated to record-padding wins.

Conference play attendance fell in line with DePaul’s first season at Wintrust, filling up closer to half capacity for weekend games against rival opponents, and less for mid-week matchups.

“I think the atmosphere is getting a little better but there [are] no students,” Simios said.

The response from DePaul’s athletic department to the issue of student attendance has always stressed the university’s unique relationship to its student body. Primarily a commuter school catering to students looking for robust extracurricular life, taking the time to support the men’s basketball team falls down the list of priorities. Lenti Ponsetto said that even when DePaul was ranked among the top teams in the country, student attendance still struggled.

Simios said he remembers big conference games in the early ’80s drawing sizable student sections, even after the program left Alumni Hall on campus for Allstate Arena in Rosemont.     

While players like Cain, Strus and Femi Olujobi are graduating in June, DePaul returns a couple of key players from this year’s roster next season: Reed, Butz and Devin Gage. Going along with them, the Blue Demons will have a top-tier recruiting class coming in next season, their best since the 2007 season.

Both Lenti Ponsetto and fans pointed to the lack of depth this past season as being a reason the Blue Demons struggled at times in the Big East. Next season, however, Leitao will have plenty of options where the depth issue shouldn’t be an excuse anymore as to why the team couldn’t win.

With two four-star recruits being added to the 2019-2020 roster in Romeo Weems and Markese Jacobs, with Oscar Lopez being thrown into the mix as well, Leitao already has plenty of options for his fifth season back at DePaul. Besides adding Weems, Jacobs and Lopez as freshmen, the Blue Demons will also have Darious Hall, Carte’are Gordon and Charlie Moore, two former four-star recruits, eligible to play next season after they transferred to DePaul this past season.

“There are going to be new people and new expectations from them and from the outside world,” Leitao said. “Maintaining a formula that doesn’t change a lot over time. You have to have good people who are willing to share themselves. You have to have an extremely high level work ethic. You need to develop a resiliency. You need to handle what is in front of you day-to-day. If we do that, it’ll probably take some time to gel, because chemistry doesn’t come naturally just because you have that talent. We have to work on that a lot. Particularly if I’m going to play more people than in years past.”

Even with Leitao having his most complete roster since he has come back to DePaul, Lenti Ponsetto believes Leitao still doesn’t have enough to be properly evaluated. After moving from Allstate Arena to Wintrust Arena in 2017, Lenti Ponsetto wants to now upgrade the facilities on campus before she can clearly evaluate her coach.

“I think [considering a coaching change] presumes DePaul has everything in place we need for any Division I program to be successful, and we do not yet,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “Wintrust Arena was phase one, phase two really has to be a significant upgrade in the facilities we have here from a practice perspective. Our locker room, our weight room, training room, film room, academic advising space; we have room to grow significantly at DePaul.

“Our goal is to continue upgrading our facilities and put us in a position to continue [to] recruit the high-class athletes like he was able to this year. Wintrust Arena was phase one, but we’ve got another phase to go.”

Simios understands DePaul’s limits in terms of facilities but wonders if winning basketball games is the answer to improving facilities. Successful basketball programs, he said, drive alumni engagement and donations that could improve facilities on campus.   

While DePaul has been mostly irrelevant in the national college basketball landscape for more than a decade now, “rebuild” is a word Lenti Ponsetto stopped short of using.

“I think we are constantly building, I don’t know about a rebuild, I don’t know what that means,” Lenti Ponsetto said. “We are constantly trying to grow the program. We are hitting a lot of our benchmarks, and I feel really positive about the growth of where we were heading.”

For long-time fans like Simios, the term “rebuild” also doesn’t feel right, but he doesn’t think that “building” is particularly appropriate either.

“I think they are trying to build,” he said.