Blue Demons on a Fast Track for Turnaround Season
Oct. 31, 2012
CHICAGO – There’s a reason why Louisville coach Rick Pitino labels DePaul as the sleeper team in the BIG EAST Conference this season.
It’s called experience.
For the first time in DePaul coach Oliver Purnell’s tenure in Lincoln Park, the Blue Demons enter a season with student-athletes well-versed in their coach’s pressure-defense strategy and how that translates into easy transition baskets at the other end.
The 6-foot, 8-inch Melvin is a Preseason All-BIG EAST Second Team selection after being named honorable mention all-conference last season. He is the league’s top returning scorer after averaging 17.5 points a game in conference play last season.
In addition, Melvin is the sixth-leading returning rebounder at 7.4 boards per game.
“I feel more confident now than a year ago,” Melvin said. “I’m working on knowing how to finish a game and playing the whole 40 minutes for the team.
“I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people. We’re going to be quicker on the court, and we’ve added some new players.”
Blue Demon fans can check out the 2012-13 team at 7:30 p.m. Saturday when DePaul takes on Lewis University in an exhibition game at McGrath-Phillips Arena.
The Blue Demons’ regular-season opener is against UC-Riverside on Nov. 9th at McGrath-Phillips Arena.
Among BIG EAST returnees, the 6-3 Young is fourth in scoring average at 14.5 points in league play, seventh in assists (4.74 per game) and seventh in assist/turnover ratio.
“We’re working hard every day to make the leap,” Young said. “We want to win a bunch of games in the BIG EAST this year and not settle for four or five.
“Most of the team is back from last season, and we have a great group of freshmen coming in. We need to fit them into our system.
“The program is at the point where we’re tired of losing and it’s time for us to start winning."
Out on the wing, the 6-6 Morgan was enjoying a productive sophomore season until he was slowed by an injury in early February. He averaged nine points in 26 games, led the Blue Demons with 54 three-pointers while clicking on 39 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
“These are exciting times,” Purnell said heading into his third season at DePaul. “This is my 25th year in coaching, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been any more excited about going into a season. There’s a buzz, and I feel good about this group.
“This is the fifth time I’ve rebuilt a program, and the third year is when you turn it around. We came so close last year in a lot of games---I thought the turnaround might come one year early.
“We have just about the entire team back including four of our top five scorers. Cleveland Melvin is the top returning scorer in the BIG EAST and Brandon Young is in the top five. Three of our leaders (Melvin, Young, Morgan) are guys who are going into their third season with me. That speaks to experience.
“This is one of the fastest teams I’ve ever had, and now we have some depth as well. This is a team that knows my system. It leans towards my type of player---long, athletic, fast.”
It will be the three juniors taking charge in the ramped-up pressure ‘D.’
“We need to be a better defensive and rebounding team,” Purnell said. “Our press last season was good, but we need to work on our half-court defense and rebounding.
“Right from the start, we’ve been working on defense in practice. We can play in the postseason if we continue to develop that defensive mindset.”
A fourth junior could be the key to DePaul improving its biggest weaknesses last season---rebounding and scoring defense.
Limited by an injury, 6-9 Donnovan Kirk did not show his true game until late in the season. The transfer from Miami will be counted on to provide the Blue Demons with rebounding strength and a shot-blocking presence.
“He’s a guy who needs to be our best big guy,” Purnell said. “He will be 100 percent healthy coming into the season and is critically important to helping Cleve on the front line.”
When healthy last season, Kirk showed he could match up well with big men in the BIG EAST.
There are rising expectations for DePaul’s high-flyer, 6-4 sophomore Jamee Crockett who was Class 4A second team All-State and led Crete-Monee to their first sectional title in school history.
Buoyed by a 37.5-inch vertical leap and rated the state’s top dunker as a senior in high school, Crockett came to Lincoln Park with a reputation for highlight-reel, aerial moves and an unpredictable outside shot.
Crockett certainly lived up to the former and shot down the latter after converting 37.6 percent of his three-point attempts and shooting 44 percent overall while averaging 8.6 points per game.
“I'd stay after practice last season with a coach to get extra shooting done,” Crockett said. “Then, I’d come back to the gym at night with some of the guys and shoot some more. I was bigger than most of the guys in high school so I didn’t need to use my outside shot.
“I put a lot of work into improving my outside shot. It’s not like a Ray Allen shot, but I’m gaining confidence in it.”
Purnell believes Crockett is just scratching the surface of his enormous potential.
“He’s a big-time talent with a huge upside, and we’re expecting Jamee to make a tremendous leap this season,” Purnell said.
Sophomore defensive specialist Charles McKinney, 6-10 sophomore center Derrell Robertson, Jr. and senior Worrell Clahar should be more confident executing DePaul’s trademark pressure defense after a full season under Purnell.
Clahar transferred in after two seasons of junior college ball. The 6-3 McKinney started 15 games and has the athleticism to flourish in the Purnell press while Robertson’s penchant for blocking shots works well at the tail-end of the defense.
Clahar came off the bench to play point guard and impacted the game with his quickness and team-leading 47 percent shooting from three-point range.
The incoming recruiting class is enhanced by the return of 6-8 freshman power forward Montray Clemons who missed the entire 2011-12 season with an injury. Clemons could provide DePaul with help on the boards.
Fortifying the wing position is 6-7 freshman Jodan Price from Detroit Country Day. Price was rated among the top 25 three-point shooters in the nation last season and converted 41 percent of his long-distance attempts as a junior. He buried nine three-pointers in a game at the Peach Jam AAU tournament in 2011.
DePaul got deeper at point guard with the addition of freshman Durrell McDonald of Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev. The Nevada All-State selection averaged 21.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and nearly four assists last season and was the state runner-up in the high jump. His personal best of 7-0 was the seventh-best jump in the nation.
A third top recruit, 6-5 freshman DeJuan Marrero, will miss the season with a knee injury. Marerro was ranked among the top 50 small forwards in the country by ESPN.com as a senior in high school.
Purnell is reiterating to his players the absolute importance of finishing games. The Blue Demons had a Louisville team that reached the NCAA Tournament Final Four down by 17 points before losing in overtime.
They had a 12-point lead against both Marquette and St. John’s that didn’t hold up. There was the two-point loss to Providence when the game was tied with 35 seconds left and a loss at Notre Dame in a game that was tied with seven minutes to go.
“We have to improve,” Purnell said. “We were so close in so many games coming down the stretch---we’ve got to know how to close out games and win.
“Experience goes a long way towards giving you that capability.”
Finishing strong will be paramount in a league that is rated with the Big Ten as the premier conferences in the nation this season. Nine BIG EAST teams competed in the 2012 NCAA tournament, the second-highest total in NCAA Championship history. The BIG EAST sent 11 teams to the Big Dance in 2011.
"I believe we can make the NCAA tournament," Young said. "We're going to shock a lot of people. A lot of them don't think we can turn this program around and win more games. It's easier to say it than do it. We can show people.
"We have come a long way from my freshman year. We're more focused. We're under coach Purnell's system more. We're ready to get this going and win more games."
Even with Connecticut ineligible for the postseason and West Virginia leaving the conference, the BIG EAST could qualify eight or nine teams for the tournament.
If you can win 20 games in the BIG EAST, there’s a high probability you’ll be competing in the NCAA tournament. Since the league was formed in the 1979-80 season, 96.3 percent of BIG EAST teams with 20 wins advanced to the tournament.
“We finished the regular season with a 28-point win over a Seton Hall team that had beaten us by almost 20 earlier in the year,” Purnell said. “We have the experience now, and I like the recruits we brought in. For us to keep getting better, they’ll have to contribute.
“The BIG EAST is the best basketball league in the country in terms of the teams and the talent. I think we can be in the middle of the mix. If we can close out some of those close games, we’ll be right there.
“Playing in the postseason is a realistic goal for us. Considering our strength of schedule playing in the BIG EAST, if we do well, we have a shot at postseason play.”