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Remember when? DePaul’s struggle to bring the glory days back

NCAA Basketball: DePaul at Creighton Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Dave Leitao’s recruiting pitch starts with him raving about the city. The culture, the music and the theater– he paints a picture as he sits beside the prospect.

“You have the beaches and the water,” he said. “But at the same point in time, you have tall buildings all within two minutes of each other, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

Then he starts describing the powerhouse the DePaul Blue Demons can be.

The legend has been told for decades, how Ray Meyer turned an awkward, long-limbed center named George Mikan into a superstar in the 1940s. For the first 27 of his 42 years coaching the Blue Demons, Meyer famously didn’t leave Illinois for a recruiting visit as he led homegrown talents like Mikan, Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings to 20 NCAA Tournaments. DePaul’s tradition was born of equal parts ingenuity and indefatigable Chicago pride.

Brandon Cyrus knows things have changed, and in his sophomore year, he sees that Chicago perceives his team as an uninspiring bunch. The forward just wishes he wouldn’t be reminded so often of how they feel.

“Everyone’s just always talking about basketball,” Cyrus said. “And how they can beat you at basketball.”

He said he remembers these moments with clarity, and he’s banking on junior forward Max Strus, a Chicago-bred guard, to reshape this stigma. The Division 2 transfer had prestigious programs calling after dominating for two seasons at that level, and he was close to committing to Xavier. But he realized Leitao could provide a combination of familiarity and opportunity in his hometown.

“It’s easy to just go into a program that already has a winning culture,” he said. “But I saw something special in DePaul and I knew we’re going to turn this place around and get it back to where it was before.”

Growing up in Chicago, Strus said he idolized former Blue Demons Quentin Richardson and Drake Diener. Now he’s trying to convince the next group of local prospects to stay here. He adds, “I can guarantee after we start winning some games around here, Chicago kids are going to want to come here.”

When Leitao was first hired by DePaul in 2003, he was supposed to cause a renaissance. An outsider brought to reclaim the program’s place in the city, he won only 30 league games in three seasons of play in the lackluster Conference USA and couldn’t return the team to the prominence it once had.

Leitao only made one NCAA Tournament appearance and didn’t recruit a single significant local contributor before leaving for the University of Virginia in 2005. But DePaul rehired him ten years later to reboot them again, and the move garnered a mixed reaction.

Now in the third season of his second stint, he’s dealing with the pressure that comes with the Blue Demons’ 11-17 record. So Leitao imparts to his players what his coaching mentor taught him about failing. “Passion needs to come from competitiveness,” Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun would say when he coached Leitao at Northeastern.

When DePaul brought Leitao back into the fold in 2015, he tried to apply that idea so he could better implement his ideas to revive the program. Find local players. Establish regional pride. Build a closer arena. The previous regime handed him two guards with NBA potential– Myke Henry and Billy Garrett Jr.– and Leitao said he saw the two Chicago natives as a part of the solution to the Blue Demons’ futility and dispirited fan base.

“It brings a lot of pride to see somebody you can touch everyday when you watch them play, and you can be involved in a specific guy and maintain specific relationships,” Leitao said. “It’s our opportunity to capitalize on that and make our team exciting to watch.”

Strus said his coach’s competitive nature has spread despite Leitao’s 17-62 record in his second chance with DePaul. No matter how hard the Blue Demons work to change their perception overnight, though, they’ll still have to deal with Chicago’s apathy as it sinks into another losing season.

“Everybody who’s performed in a city has been really good at some point, and not so good at some point, too,” Leitao said. “To get the kind of fans that you need game in and game out, winning basketball games is what matters more than anything.”

In Chicago, winning has always been the factor that affects how much people care. But which comes first: consistent fans or impactful recruits?

For the first time in decades, the Blue Demons have an up-to-date arena. But even though they’re no longer playing with a sheet of hockey ice under the floor and the distance from campus was cut in half, Wintrust hasn’t yet significantly improved attendance.

In the new 10,387-seat arena, DePaul averages 5,985 fans per game in the first two months, which is just 605 more than last season at Allstate Arena. Leitao said a contributing factor is the lack of coverage it’s receiving from local papers and television networks as the Blue Demons continue to sputter.

“A fan usually watches ESPN before he watches Fox,” he said. “Although we have a great contract and are on TV every game, sometimes being familiar with, say, Butler is different from being familiar with Ohio State for those reasons.”

Leitao hasn’t made the roadblocks disappear because negative perception bleeds into recruiting. Strus has been the best local player to commit under Leitao so far, and injured guard Devin Gage is the only other scholarship player from Illinois that he’s signed.

Of the 44 players to whom Leitao offered a scholarship last season, only 4 were from the Chicago area, according to 24/7 Sports. He’s clearly dividing his attention among highly touted prospects across the country, and DePaul’s three incoming recruits so far for 2018 come from Wisconsin, Georgia and Australia. The closest relationship Leitao has built with any high school is with Indiana’s La Lumiere, which has sent four players, a walk-on and a coach to DePaul over the last three years.

Tyger Campbell, a national top 50 prospect from this school, committed to DePaul last May. It appeared Blue Demons gained the flashy point guard to complement their new arena and that their relationship with La Lumiere had paid off. Their plans just fell apart when he tweeted he would be attending UCLA instead.

“You’ve just got to battle when you have a college campus in the suburbs,” Leitao said about his difficulty bringing elite prospects. “We got to recruit good players, we got to develop good players, and then put them into an environment to be successful. And that’s by winning.”

Also, Strus said he understands why an NBA hopeful would spurn DePaul: “It’s hard to get seen when you’re not winning.”

The Blue Demons face Butler on Wednesday, and a loss would all but guarantee Leitao another losing record in conference play. So heading into the matchup, Strus remembers a piece of advice his coach told him Calhoun once said. “When things don’t go your way, just keep going. Even when there’s nothing you can really do about it.”