Commentary: DePaul men’s basketball still has long way to go after solid tournament

The latest season for DePaul men’s basketball came to a conclusion last week with a valiant yet disheartening effort against Creighton University in the Big East Tournament. The Blue Demons played with pride and certainly didn’t deserve to be blown out-they simply ran into the unstoppable Doug McDermott and his legendary touch from behind the arc.

DePaul earned the right to play Creighton by defeating Georgetown 60-56 the night prior. The win represented the team’s best game of the season, a complete 40-minute effort that featured timely offense and stingy defense. It was a game DePaul deserved to win in every way.

For all intents and purposes, it was a successful run in the tournament for coach Oliver Purnell’s squad. They upset a perennial tournament team and played better than the final score indicated against the nation’s No. 14 team.

Which leads me to this quote from Conan O’Brien, in his speech to the Harvard class of 2000: “When all else fails, you always have delusion.”

DePaul played decent basketball in the Big East tournament, and at many points in the 2013-2014 season, there’s no denying that. Though it only won 12 games, the team appeared to be a bit better than in years prior. But the worst thing, the absolute worst thing, that DePaul can do is sit back and say, “this wasn’t our year, our setbacks were too much to overcome. This wasn’t a team that wasn’t producing when at full strength.” That would be, in a word, delusional. The fact of the matter is that while the Blue Demons were a competitive team this past year, they were still putrid. And if the university can’t see that, well, then all else has failed and complacency has set in.

An era has ended. Brandon Young is leaving and Cleveland Melvin left long ago; at the forefront now are the next batch of athletic young players looking to bring DePaul back to glory. Big East Rookie of the Year Billy Garrett Jr. and fellow freshman Tommy Hamilton IV are the new leaders of the team, and their presence is more important than anything. They are two players not accustomed to losing, coming off of a year where losing was commonplace. Their fire and tenacity will be the key to building the Blue Demons as next year looms.

From a purely technical standpoint, it appears as though 2014-2015 will be a trying but exciting year for the Blue Demons. The returning players will make an impact, including R.J. Curington and Forrest Robinson, two scorers who showed flashes in limited time. The team’s youth will lead to growing pains, but the skill of the players alone will lead to a few wins.

In addition, Purnell has secured a recruiting class that could make waves. Myke Henry is a transfer from Illinois who can provide muscle in the lane and energy on both ends of the court. Ray Doby is a skilled forward who will add size. Rashaun Stimage is a junior college product who is phenomenally athletic and can bring a versatile offensive game. Jon Davis is another athletic young man who will provide depth. It’s a recruiting class that raises no eyebrows, but one that could lead to a few more wins than in previous seasons.

This new collection of players ensures that the Blue Demons will at the very least remain steady. As painful as that sounds, staying the course is usually better than taking two steps back, especially when two steps back seems impossible.

Will it be enough? Probably not, at least if you’re expecting results in the next two years. This could be considered Purnell’s “second chance.” His first recruiting class put up the numbers but not the wins; his second could be the one that finally brings pride back to DePaul. But it will still take time-something that Purnell may not have. While it’s been confirmed he is coming back next year, the conclusion of the upcoming season will mark the end of the “five-year process” that athletic director Jean Lenti-Ponsetto mentioned in an article in the Chicago Tribune.

“When he came here we talked about taking four or five years to get it turned and to get the caliber of student-athlete we want in the program,” she said. “It’s definitely a rebuild, this process that we’re in, and we’re going to stay the course, recruit, just get better and execute.”

And that’s what it ultimately will come down to-recruiting and executing. In fact, that might as well be the new motto for DePaul basketball: Recruit and Execute. It’s a two-step process that has evaded the Blue Demons for over a decade.

Take a look at the teams gracing the bracket for this year’s NCAA tournament. Wichita State is in Wichita, and not only that, it has to compete with Kansas University to recruit the best in-state talent. The Shockers are 34-0 and have a No. 1 seed in the tournament. Virginia is in Charlottesville and had to deal with the addition of high-powered Syracuse to the ACC. The Wahoos not only secured a No. 1 seed, they also won their conference. And don’t forget Providence. The Friars may be in the nation’s smallest state, but they still won the Big East tournament (against Creighton, a power which recruits out of Omaha) and earned a tournament berth.

Wichita. Charlottesville. Providence. No one would ever mistake these towns as ideal recruiting locations. Yet these schools have found a way, even with the odds stacked against them. DePaul, meanwhile, has the entirety of Chicago and much of the Midwest available to utilize. All they have to show for it is one Top 100 recruit-who most certainly came because of the family connection. Purnell scored some recruits for this upcoming year, but nowhere near the caliber of other schools with less of a geographical advantage. Until this changes, DePaul will never return to prominence.

So, recruiting has been horrid. How about executing? Not so much. DePaul ranked 224th out of 351 in points per game, and ranked 305th in points allowed. DePaul hasn’t finished in the top 100 of either statistic under Purnell. Execution has been lacking. This is mostly because of the dearth of talent on the roster, but then again that’s why recruiting and executing go hand in hand. Unless you have the world’s most incredible coach, you will never be able to do one without the other.

As stated above, DePaul has made the steps necessary to start the process of getting better. It’s nearly impossible to think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel here, but there is one. It may not be getting brighter, but it’s not going out just yet. The 2014-2015 season will be a pivotal one in deciding the future of DePaul basketball. If the team flounders again, as it likely will, Purnell could get the boot. Then, there would be even more questions.

For better or for worse, the upcoming season doesn’t mean much by itself. It’s not overly important if DePaul gets 20 wins or gets 20 losses-what matters is the overall process that is taken to build the team. If the Blue Demons want to open their new arena triumphantly in 2016, they had better field a team capable of doing so when that date rolls around. That’s why this next season is just the next step in building the team. Win, lose-most fans probably don’t really care at this point. The wins are empty and the losses are numbing; what is needed is a team that can inspire confidence and excitement on a yearly basis.

It may take years for DePaul to get there. But if they find a way to recruit and execute, anything is possible. Getting better is a process. Next season is the new beginning of that process.