A lot had changed since Dave Leitao was last in Chicago, and the second-year head coach for the DePaul Blue Demons is adjusting to it.
The last time he was in the Windy City as DePaul's head coach, the program was a member of Conference USA. Now, it's in a conference with much stiffer competition.
"I've learned how difficult this league is," he said about the Big East. "It's different teams, different locations, but same intensity of the Big East that I have known all these years. For me, understanding the biggest learning curve is that you have to be good in the areas of recruiting--obviously--you have to coach them, and motivate them. That was enough for me to understand what we need to do moving forward."
The Blue Demons finished 9-22 last season and ninth in the Big East with a 3-15 record. The result was a far cry from Leitao's previous stint at DePaul, which lasted three years, from 2002-05. Regardless, he accomplished more in that stretch than any new Blue Demon head coach since.
He compiled a 58-34 coaching record, and DePaul made a postseason tournament in each of his three seasons. The Blue Demons took two trips to the NIT, won a conference regular season title, and made an appearance at the NCAA Tournament in 2004. His final two years were marked by back-to-back 20-win seasons. He then left DePaul to be the head coach at Virginia.
Since then, DePaul has only had one 20-win season, and it hasn't been dancing in March. All of Leitao's accomplishments are distant memories, as the Blue Demons have only endured turbulence. He was able to experience that bitter taste firsthand last season.
So far, this season is looking like more of the same for the Blue Demons, at least in the eyes of the conference. According to a preseason poll, they are projected to finish last in the Big East.
The road to improvement and proving naysayers wrong won't be easy either. DePaul graduated Myke Henry, its top scorer, who averaged 13.7 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game last season. The Blue Demons also said farewell to starter Aaron Simpson and key reserve Rashaun Stimage. Four players also transferred during the offseason: three freshmen--Oumar Berry (Iowa Western CC), Develle Phillips (Odessa College), and Frederick Scott (Rider)--and Tommy Hamilton IV, who left the team for undisclosed reasons and eventually found his way onto Texas Tech's basketball team.
Despite the many departures, Leitao feels confident in the group he has now.
"The air in the gym is completely different," Leitao said. "Everybody, at least right now, is 100 percent on the same page. They all want the same thing; they all want what I want. That allows us to move in a more positive direction in a quicker period of time."
DePaul does bring back Billy Garrett Jr. for one last senior season, and Eli Cain, who is coming off of an excellent first year that culminated in Big East All-Rookie Team honors. Garrett is DePaul's top returning scorer, after averaging 12.6 points per game last season but shot just 39.5 percent overall and a subpar 27.7 percent from long range.
As for Cain, he averaged 10.3 points per game, heating up in the second half of the season. He had a knack for scoring from almost anywhere on the court and truly excelled from the 3-point line. He finished with a 42.5 three-point shooting percentage, which was the second-highest in the Big East.
"As a third or fourth option last year, he wasn’t on top of the scouting reports so he could get some things," Leitao said. "Now, along with Billy, he’ll be the focal point for everybody’s attack."
Aside from them, DePaul is going to see a lot of last season's remaining reserves get more minutes and more new faces take the court.
The Blue Demons bring in a handful of 3-star prospects in guards Devin Gage (Chicago Ill./Curie HS) and Brandon Cyrus (La Porte, Ind./La Lumiere), as well as forward Al Eichelberger (Saginaw, Mich/Saginaw HS), and center Levi Cook (Arnett, W.Va./Elev8 Basketball Academy).
They also bring in four transfers, but only two of them will be eligible to play in the coming season. Graduate transfer Chris Harrison-Docks (Western Kentucky) is a guard that can contribute right away. There's also Tre'Darius McCallum, who has two years of eligibility left after transferring in from Indian Hills Community College. He is a versatile forward that can stretch the floor, shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc last season.
McCallum adds some much-needed depth to the DePaul frontcourt, who is lacking in size and numbers. He's the only player with true collegiate experience of playing the forward position on DePaul's roster. Eichelberger and Cook are still unproven freshmen, and the other three forwards on the Blue Demons' roster are walk-ons.
"I think you have to be naturally worried, we’re going to play a little undersized," Leitao said. "The good thing about it is we’ll be able to diversify, be quicker, and faster, and those kinds of things but then I think if you look at the league there are some teams that have a little bit of size. The league doesn’t present itself as a huge league to begin with. I think college basketball is playing a little smaller."
So far, it seems like Leitao has a better grasp of his team, and the year of experience has helped him be better acclimated to the Big East. However, will it translate into wins and long-awaited improvement of the basketball program?
The Windy City will have to wait and see, just like how it has done since Leitao first left over a decade ago. The answer has yet to arrive at DePaul.