The stench of losing has been hard for DePaul to get rid of.
The Blue Demons have suffered nine-straight losing seasons, and DePaul head coach Dave Leitao is hoping to put an end to the dubious streak. If he can’t stop the losing, Leitao at least wants to nudge his team on the right track toward success and show tangible progress in the 2016-17 season.
Leitao, in his second year back at DePaul after once serving as coach from 2002-05 (and taking the Blue Demons to their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2004), is preaching a “culture change.”
As one might expect, Leitao struggled in his first season back, as the Blue Demons finished with a 9-22 record and accumulated just three Big East wins.
While his Demons were once again picked to finish in last place by Big East coaches, Leitao likes the team’s attitude heading into the season.
“We’ll have inexperience and things to overcome,” Leitao told Today’s U about DePaul’s shortcomings while at Big East media day. “But we’ll have much better chemistry, much better feel for what we’re doing and (be more) unselfish. Those are the kind of things that have to be a part of a foundation to be successful.”
Leitao has two known quantities on his roster in senior guard Billy Garrett Jr. (who was named to the preseason Big East Second Team) and sophomore forward Eli Cain (who was named to the Big East All-Freshmen Team last season).
Outside of Garrett and Cain, Leitao is bringing back just three scholarship players (senior guards Darrick Wood and R.J. Curington, as well as sophomore guard Erten Gazi) and neither of them have proven to be anything more than solid bench players.
DePaul is also bringing in eight newcomers (two of whom are transfers sitting out this season, Austin Grandstaff and Max Strus).
So Leitao will need Garrett and Cain to carry this team as it tries to dig out of a decade-long hole.
Nevertheless, Leitao likes how he has reshuffled the roster despite losing key pieces from last season – namely last season’s leading scorer and rebounder, Myke Henry (13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game).
Leitao said he wants to move Garrett, who has mostly played point guard in his first three seasons, more off the ball and limit his minutes since Garrett suffers from the effects of sickle cell disease. Garrett is believed to be the only Division 1 athlete that plays with sickle cell disease.
Leitao said he will use Garrett in a variety of ways.
“As the year went on last (season), I got more comfortable how to mange (him),” said Leitao. “He got more comfortable (too) which is the most important thing. My goal coming into the year was to move him off the ball enough so that it takes some of the pressure off of him having to lead.”
Garrett had a fine junior season en route to averaging 12.6 points and a team-leading 3.5 assists per game while shooting 81.9 percent from the free-throw line. However, he shot only 39.5 percent from the field and a sub-par 27.7 percent from three-point range, while seeing just 28 minutes per game – all being career-low marks.
“I wouldn’t attribute it to sickle cell, (or) it having any more of an effect on me than it has the past three years I have been here,” Garrett said about last season’s personal struggles. “It was a basketball thing more than anything.
“It was getting acquainted to a new system and getting acquainted to everything (new),” Garrett added. “I feel like I’m healthy now and more than ready for (this season).”
A lot will also be expected of Cain this season.
After averaging 10.3 points (third on the team), 3.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game last season, Cain is ready to become a team leader and get the DePaul program off the ground.
“Individually I haven’t set any goals,” said Cain. “I just want to win more, do well in Big East (play) and make the tournament. I just want to change the culture of DePaul basketball.”
Cain is also motivated by the fact that DePaul is predicted to come in last.
“Absolutely,” Cain said when asked whether being picked last is extra fuel to prove doubters wrong. “There is nothing we can really do it about it now, but when the team starts winning we’re going to see who’s last and who’s first.”
Leitao is expecting Cain to take the natural step of his progression as a sophomore.
“When you have a guy go from year one to year two, it’s a critically important time,” Leitao said about Cain’s maturation. “As our third or fourth option (last season), he wasn’t at the top of scouting reports. Now along with Billy, he’ll be a focal point of everybody’s attack.
“In a game of chess, it’s his move now,” Leitao added. “It’s our move to get him in the position to be a better, consistent scorer. He’s psychically and mentally ready for that.”
To a man, it’s all about that “culture change” though.
Leitao feels he has a team that is ready to buy into the team concept and get DePaul back on the winning track.
“The air in the gym is completely different,” said Leitao. “Everybody right now is 100 percent on the same page. They all want the same thing as I want. That allows us to move in a positive direction.”