Movin’ on up: men’s team prepared to climb the Big East ranks

It’s been a tough few years for the men’s basketball team. The Blue Demons haven’t made an appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2004 and over the last seven years, the team has a cumulative record of 79-138, including a 25-97 mark in conference play.

But in 2012, the optimism has never been higher. With a fresh crop of new playÎ_ers and the return of several key veterans, Head Coach Oliver Purnell’s squad is hopÎ_ing to improve and finish the year in the top half of the Big East Conference.

DePaul demolished Seton Hall 86-58 in the season finale last year, a rousing victory that Purnell hopes will provide confidence and momentum.

“We played really well at the end of the year, and now with some carryover with the influx of some new guys, some talent, some athleticism, I think we’ll be much better,” said Purnell.

Purnell is entering his third year at the helm of DePaul basketball and his vision for the team is finally starting to come to fruition. The Blue Demons won five more games in 2011 than in Purnell’s first year and won their most conference games since the 2007-2008 season. Juniors Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young have improved steadily and are now the leaders of a team that, for the first time, is made up completely of players hand-picked by Purnell and his staff.

Young averaged 14.5 points per game last season and is relishing his role as a veteran leader.

“You know, me being the starting point guard, I’ve learned a lot since my freshÎ_man and sophomore years,” said Young. “Now that I’m a junior, I know what to tell these young guys and let them know what to expect. I just try to go out there and lead the best way that I can.”

While the improvement has been sigÎ_nificant, there is still much work to be done. The Blue Demons are a very small team – their tallest player is 6-foot-10-inch sophomore Derrell Robertson, Jr. – and they will be tested against the huge inteÎ_rior players from teams like Syracuse and Louisville.

In addition, DePaul must improve on the defensive end. The Blue Demons were a dismal 326th in the nation in points allowed per game last year and the players now seem to have bought in to Purnell’s defensive philosophy.

“Right now we’re in a defensive mini-camp in pracÎ_tice, so we’ve just been focusing on defense,” said Melvin following the team’s open practice Oct. 13. “Everybody on the team understands that defense is the most important thing in basketball. If you play defense, your offense will follow and you can win a lot more games in the Big East.”

“The first few days in practice, all we’ve done is defense,” said Purnell. “We haven’t done anything offenÎ_sively except for warmup. We’ve really been working on the fundamentals of our man-to-man defense – we haven’t even put in pressure yet. A huge part of the fundamentals in man-to-man is defensive rebounding.”

Depth has also been an issue in recent years for DePaul, but there are currently 16 players on the roster and Purnell has more ways to divvy up minutes than he has in the past. This should be welcome news to Melvin and Young, who both averaged over 30 minutes per game last season.

The Blue Demons are far from a finished product but there is no question that this is Purnell’s most talented squad to date. Even though star recruit DeJuan Marrero will miss the season due to a torn ACL, there are fewer holes in the roster than ever. That gives Melvin and his teammates confidence as the start of the season nears.

“I think we’re going to be a better team as far as our record,” said Melvin. “I think we’re going to win more games in the Big East and move up a few spots.”

Purnell is taking the optimism a step further.

“We can get up in the middle of [the Big East] and really be competitive and continue to get better at the end of the year. We’re going have a chance to do some things in postseason play.”