COMMENTARY: A miracle at the Garden won’t save the Dave Leitao regime


Alexa Sandler | The DePaulia

DePaul head coach Dave Leitao looks down during the Blue Demons’ 79-66 loss to St. John’s on Saturday at Wintrust Arena.

Everyone is allowed to believe in miracles; it’s what makes sports so magical. That’s why the month of March is so special in college basketball, because every team has a chance to go on a magical run to close their season – even the bottom feeders.

Just a couple of weeks ago, America celebrated the 40-year anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” where the United States hockey team defeated the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Olympics. If that was possible, then anything is possible in sports – including the 15-16 DePaul Blue Demons winning the Big East Tournament.

But just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s worth holding out hope that it will happen. In fact, DePaul, who finished in last place in the Big East with a 3-15 record, goes into the Big East Tournament with the lowest odds to advance to each respective round, with only a 0.4 percent to win the whole tournament.

The Blue Demons will play Xavier in the first round at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, with the winner taking on No. 2 seed Villanova the following day. Let’s be real: DePaul is not winning the Big East Tournament, and they will probably lose in the first round against Xavier.

In head coach Dave Leitao’s first four years, the Blue Demons have not won a game in the Big East Tournament and have lost all four games by a combined 39 points. Since Leitao was hired in 2015, DePaul is 19-78 in Big East games, with four straight last place finishes.

This year was supposed to be different. With the influx of talent and depth, the potential was there for DePaul to escape the cellar of the conference and emerge as an NCAA Tournament team. And after the 12-1 start during the non-conference portion of the Blue Demons’ schedule, that assumption became even more valid.

But DePaul and Leitao choked in the Big East. The high expectations placed on them entering conference play were too much for them to handle. The Blue Demons finished with a 3-15 record, including an eight-game losing streak from January to February.

“We just played better people,” a source close to the team said. “We played against better programs. We played against programs who take winning more seriously. That’s what’s going to happen when you play teams who care about winning, who don’t want to lose.”

Leitao’s five years at DePaul has been an utter disaster from the on-court production and the program’s behavior off the court. Last week, junior guard Devin Gage became the 12th player to transfer during the Leitao era. Gage was the last remaining player from the class of 2016 still on the roster. Seton Hall, Marquette and Butler, however, all have at least one player from that class who are leading them to the NCAA Tournament this season: Myles Powell, Markus Howard and Kamar Baldwin, respectively. All three of those players were most recently named to the All-Big East first team. DePaul, of course, had nobody on the first team, but junior forward Paul Reed was picked for the second team.

Anyone who has watched Reed this season knows he has the potential to be on that first team, but his coach has ruined his overall potential. That in itself is embarrassing for the program that had so much promise before Christmas.

Those first two years of the Leitao experiment might as well have not happened. Leitao went 18-45 overall and did not land one single four-star recruit in that span, and every player who has come through the program since then has left.

“Leitao’s relationship with his players is kind of hard to explain,” a source close to the team said. “He is different. He goes about things differently.”

The relationship that a coach has with his players is vital to a team’s success, and Leitao has proven that he doesn’t build positive bonds with a lot of his players. Even junior forward Paul Reed and freshman Markese Jacobs have voiced their displeasure with Leitao on Twitter earlier this season. And who can blame them?

A source confirmed to The DePaulia that Gage got angry at the coaches after a 79-67 loss to St. John’s and confronted them in the locker room after the game. They also said that the coaching staff made certain promises about how minutes would be split during the season, and failed to fulfil those promises when the season began in November.

The way that Leitao has handled this season, and frankly the last five years, is shameful for a Big East school. In the team’s last game against Providence, the Blue Demons lost 93-55 at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Saturday – the worst loss during Leitao’s tenure. Only a spineless athletic director like Jean Lenti Ponsetto would hire her friend over qualified candidates like Bobby Hurley and Bryce Drew.

Prior to coming to DePaul, Leitao was an assistant coach at Tulsa where he was making a low six-figure salary. And Lenti Ponsetto deemed this man as the right coach to bring DePaul basketball back to its former glory days. And then paid him more than $1 million per year.

Like always, though, she was wrong. Both Lenti Ponsetto and Leitao have helped ruin DePaul basketball — both institutional embarrassments. And both of them should be shown the door when this season painfully ends against Xavier on Wednesday.

A source told The DePaulia that the culture around the men’s team felt “isolating” due to a culture in which they say coaches are unwilling to address the concerns from players about behavior they felt was inconsistent with team values.

This is the type of culture that Leitao has built during his five years with the program, and it goes beyond the awful performances on the court. Leitao also helped get DePaul get in trouble with the NCAA for recruiting violations, and the NCAA suspended Leitao for the first three games of the 2019-2020 season and put the Blue Demons on probation for three seasons. Everything Leitao has touched has turned into dust. He’s by far the most incompetent coach and leader in the Big East.

DePaul will lose to Xavier on Wednesday because the players aren’t being put in the right positions to win on a consistent basis. The Blue Demons pulled off a miraculous 69-68 win over Marquette on March 3, but they followed that up with a 38-point drubbing to the hands of Providence. Both games DePaul played without Reed, who is dealing with a hip pointer injury.

If Lenti Ponsetto had any clue how to run a college program, she would have told Leitao to forget about coaching the Big East Tournament. Instead, the Massachusetts native will be allowed to stand on the sidelines in New York and embarrass the program for one final time. When the season comes to an end at Madison Square Garden, Leitao should announce he won’t be returning next season.

He at least owes that much to the fans who have had to watch his pathetic brand of basketball for five years.