Catch-22: Where does DePaul men’s basketball go from here?

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NEW YORK – The Blue Demons are stuck.

Their eighth and final season appearance in the Big East Tournament ended just about as soon as it began, a routine with which DePaul fans have become well acquainted since the team left Conference USA before the 2005-2006 season.

Since that move, the Blue Demons have never won more than nine Big East games in a season, and their mediocrity hit its lowest when the team went a record-setting 0-18 in conference play in 2008-2009. This season, they won two.

Numbers never lie, and in this case they tell brutal truths. But this all begs the question: why are the Blue Demons so bad?

Well, for a litany of reasons.

Unfortunately, when combined, they create a catch-22, an inescapable paradox.

The first issue comes down to the players DePaul fields game in and game out. What happens on the court is naturally paramount to a team’s success, which is why the Demons didn’t find any in their time with the “original” Big East.

Contrary to what senior guard Worrel Clahar believed, quoted on March 10 as saying, “We have talent” to win the Big East, the Blue Demons drew nary even minor consideration as being contenders. And, given the team’s 76-57 loss to Rutgers in the tournament’s opening round – a team DePaul defeated less than a month ago – no one’s mind was changed that the Demons aren’t still bottom feeders of the league.

The core trio of juniors Cleveland Melvin, Brandon Young and Moses Morgan was meant to be the team’s future, young prospects with lots of upside that could dig DePaul out of the shallow grave formed during the tail end of the Jerry Wainwright era.

After three seasons, though the three have shown moderate signs of progress, there hasn’t been game-changing evolution.

Melvin averaged 16.6 points and almost seven rebounds a game this season, but his stats were quietly produced on the court. Stretches would pass with Melvin left out of offensive possessions, a stagnant halfcourt strategy that featured endless perimeter passing without much effort given to letting Melvin and other post players operate on the block. In addition, his lack of strength relative to other frontcourt players exposed his vulnerability on defense, especially problematic against more physical Big East teams.

Young excels on the fastbreak finding streaking teammates for quick baskets, but when the defense adapts and keeps transition opportunities to a minimum, he struggles. The halfcourt offense leads Young to often take contested jumpers or long threes, of which he only converted 31 percent.

As for Morgan, who was poised to be DePaul’s outside sniper, floundered all season. Morgan shot just 30.5 percent from downtown (32-105) and was eventually relegated to the bench halfway through the season.

Collectively, the Blue Demons actually weren’t bad on offense, despite a few players’ individual struggles. DePaul was third in the league in scoring offense at 71.4 points per game, but its defense was where things went south. The Blue Demons were dead last in scoring defense, allowing 75.3 points per game. Next closest was St. John’s, allowing teams to score 66.3 points per game against them. In other words, the Demons were defenseless by a large margin.

“Defensively, we struggled there all year long,” said Purnell. “Our defensive field goal percentage, couple with our rebounding, which have to do with each other, totally. It really hurt us in a lot of close games. We take care of the defensive board a bit better, it finishes on the other side of the ledger.

That’s not rocket science or anything,” said Purnell. “Defense wins games. Defense wins championships.”

Which brings us back to DePaul’s paradoxical situation and the next element of the conflict: coaching. Purnell, known for turning programs around, has amassed just a 30-64 overall record. His reliance on fullcourt pressure defense, while effective in theory, seemed to simply overwhelm the Blue Demons. Countless times this season, defenders were left out of place once an initial pass over a double team or trap met its mark up the court. It was then simply a matter of a lone DePaul defender attempting to halt 2- or 3-on-1 breaks.

“It’s a little quick to be thinking ahead,” said Purnell, when asked what his plans are for improving the team in the offseason. “We clearly can’t stand pat even though I felt like we were really close. Being really close and standing pat doesn’t work … the first thing I told the guys was that we all need to look in the mirror and see what each individual could have done better, and that starts with me.

“So that’s where I’ll start,” said Purnell, “in the mirror tonight.”

Entering the fourth year of his seven-year contract, Purnell has plenty of ground to make up to turn this team around. But as important as coaching and improving a team’s talent are, recruiting is arguably the most crucial to DePaul, success in which has yet to come to fruition.

While DePaul’s program stumbled upon a couple of hidden gems in Baltimore natives Melvin and Young, recruiting has been uninspired. On the current roster, Jamee Crockett and Charles McKinney emerged as decent swingmen with good on-ball defensive fundamentals and athleticism, but are not players that can carry a program to the next level. Clahar proved to be a solid pickup, a hustle player who rebounded and attacked the basket, despite his small stature.

But none of these players are on par with, say, Jabari Parker, Chicago native and familiar name to any DePaul fan. Parker, a Simeon senior, had DePaul in his top-10 list of prospective schools, but eventually chose Duke. Even though the Blue Demons drew consideration from Parker, for all anyone knows, DePaul could have been his 10th choice. Putting any eggs in that basket was misguided, but it’s hard to argue that his signing would be a huge coup for DePaul. It would not only be a big step in bringing on local, home-grown Chicago players, but also a good bargaining chip to welcome other curious high schoolers.

The Blue Demons have so far settled on Billy Garrett, Jr. as the lead of next year’s recruiting class. The Morgan Park guard, son of DePaul’s assistant coach Billy Garrett, is one of Illinois’ top guards and an encouraging prospect. Obviously one is not enough, and Purnell and his coaching staff have their work cut out for them in pursuing more bodies.

Thus completes DePaul’s catch-22, a trifecta of enigmas the program must alleviate in order to win.

Games are won on the court with talent. Without the talent, games cannot be won. With stronger coaching, the players have a chance to improve and take their games to the next level. But without coaching discipline, the players’ development is left in gridlock. When recruits notice a lack of talent and coaching, they are less inclined to sign with the school. And when top recruits do not come aboard, there is less talent, less to coach, and less of a chance to win ball games.

Sounds like a pickle, and it is. It’s a never-ending cycle, at least it has been for the past eight seasons in the Big East.

So, what’s the solution? Hard to say.

For Purnell, a change of conference – in members only, not in name – might be a difference. A fresh start. But with new entries like Butler and Xavier in the mix, there certainly won’t be any watering down of the competition pool.

“I think the competition level is going to be pretty similar, to be honest with you,” said Purnell. “I’m just looking forward to us being better and winning more games and turning some of those close losses into wins and be the fourth year of us being on board here.

“So looking at getting over the hump in most of those close games and just winning games,” said Purnell. “I think our new league … is going to be one of the best. It has a chance to be as good as this league depending on who else comes in.”

For now, it’s time to recuperate and reload. Time to lick the fresh wounds of an eighth straight letdown season.

The Blue Demons have fallen and, at the moment, they can’t get up. Unfortunately for them, LifeCall responders are not standing by. This is something they need to figure out on their own.