COMMENTARY: More talent, fewer excuses for Leitao and men’s basketball


Alexa Sandler / The DePaulia

Men’s basketball head coach Dave Leitao at a press conference in March of 2019.

As DePaul gets ready to begin year five of the Dave Leitao experiment, the time to win has finally arrived.

For the first four years of Leitao’s tenure, the Blue Demons have failed to move up in the Big East standings, finishing in last place three years in a row, and changing the narrative that DePaul basketball is a losing program. Leitao has been given every excuse by Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto about why he deserves more time and why fans need to be patient.

But with patience running thin from a decreasing fanbase and pressure growing from the outside to show growth, Leitao finally has the best group of talent to bring DePaul back to relevance in Chicago and in the national landscape.

When Leitao returned to DePaul in 2015, Lenti Ponsetto promised fans that the expectation for the team was to win right away, that the Blue Demons are not looking to rebuild.

“We don’t see that as a rebuilding project, but an opportunity to take the next step in the process,” Lenti Ponsetto said in 2015. “Our expectation is to win now. We have talent here that needs to be re-engineered. It was clear to our search committee that Dave Leitao was our No. 1 choice.”

Four years later, the Blue Demons might as well have been rebuilding because they come nowhere close to contending in the Big East — let alone making the NCAA Tournament. Since Leitao has taken over, DePaul is 48-82 overall and 16-56 in the Big East, coupled in with three last-place finishes in the conference and no wins in the Big East Tournament.

But with the increase in talent and the way the Blue Demons ended last season, making a run to the CBI championship series, the expectations for this program are higher than they have been in previous years. The Blue Demons have a top-30 recruiting class coming in, with freshmen Romeo Weems and Markese Jacobs headlining the new additions. Junior transfer Charlie Moore bolsters the guard position, and returning juniors Devin Gage, Paul Reed and Jaylen Butz are expected to take their game to another level this season.

With talent not being an issue anymore for the men’s basketball team and multiple players experiencing postseason play, there aren’t many remaining questions remaining that in the past have hindered the Blue Demons. All that is left to be solved is whether or not Leitao can coach.

Lenti Ponsetto remains one of the few people who keeps backing her coach, but his record on and off the court gives off a different message. This past summer, the NCAA placed DePaul on probation for three years for illegal recruiting activity and suspended Leitao for the first three games of the 2019-2020 season for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

While the public was busy making fun of Leitao and his program for numerous reasons, inside the athletic department they were working on defending their coach by announcing they are negotiating a five-year contract extension.

On the court, Leitao doesn’t have much to brag about either. His losing record is the worst in the conference since 2015 and he has failed to win one Big East Tournament game in four years. When Leitao was hired, he promised to improve the Blue Demons’ defense, which was struggling under the previous coaching regime.

“Playing defense is the most controllable asset in sports,” Leitao said when he got hired in 2015. “You don’t need to jump out of a gym, shoot three-pointers or be super athletic to play defense. It’s a mindset, and you can bring it every single night. That’s why I love defense.”

The defense has been just as atrocious as Leitao’s overall record. Last season, DePaul finished 223rd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom rankings, and gave up 76.4 points per game — which was second-worst in the Big East. In three of the four seasons, Leitao has failed to crack the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Against bad teams last season, the Blue Demons’ defense looked like an elite defense, holding their non-conference opponents to less than 75 points nine times. In the Big East, however, DePaul’s defense gave up 75 or more points on 11 occasions — going 2-9 in those games.

With the defense struggling all year, there wasn’t much hope that it would improve at the end of the season, but there was at least an expectation to show some level of competence at the most important point of the season. DePaul went into the final day of the regular season with a great chance to earn a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament. All they had to do was beat Creighton on the road, and they would secure the sixth seed.

Last season was the first time in four seasons that DePaul cracked the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency. But against South Florida in game three of the CBI championship series, DePaul’s offense only mustered up 65 points and only shot 32.1 percent from the field.

But at the end of the season, Lenti Ponsetto offered to make more excuses as to why Leitao has failed to improve the offense and defense.

“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 last week.

Steve Lavin, a college basketball analyst, had optimism for the Blue Demons this season during Big East Media Day, when he picked them to be a dark horse team this season.

“I like DePaul’s frontline,” Lavin said. “You look at Reed and Butz, those are two high-percentage finishers. They didn’t have the most shots last year when you had Strus and company, but I think this year Dave Leitao is going to play through the post, he’s going to attack the paint and he has the experience now with Butz and Reed being juniors. Once you get your roster to a place where you’ve got some NBA players, you got a chance to have special seasons and that’s why I think this will be the most balanced Blue Demons team we’ve seen in decades.”

With the roster set, DePaul has talent and depth across each position. But it will only work if the man making the important decisions on the starting lineup, play style and in-game adjustments is smart enough to get the best out of his team.

As a new season approaches, Leitao doesn’t seem to be on the hot seat because he and the program are negotiating on a five-year contract extension, but the success of the most talented Blue Demons team in over a decade rides on the shoulders of one man: Dave Leitao.