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DePaul’s foundering ship has been no better under Oliver Purnell

DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell directs his players during first half an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville Rosemont Ill.

DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell directs his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Rosemont, Ill., on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

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Updated: February 25, 2014 10:28AM

Jerry Wainwright was fired midway through his fifth season at ­DePaul with a 59-80 ­overall record and a 20-51 Big East mark that featured a 22-game conference losing streak.

Wainwright was a quick-with-a-quip good guy and a feel-good story at the time he was hired, a Chicagoan called home for a grand finale after tasting success over many years in more remote locations. Despite one 20-victory season, no one would argue that Wainwright got it done here. He had come to symbolize DePaul’s Big East futility, and no tears were shed over his dismissal outside the Wainwright household.

Athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto then vowed to get it right with the sport that matters most at DePaul, and Oliver Purnell was the product of a nationwide search, bequeathed a seven-year contract and a salary in excess of $2 million as a sign of the university’s renewed commitment.

Wrapping up his fourth season, Purnell brings a 40-82 overall record, an 8-61 Big East mark and a 10-game conference losing streak into the meeting with Seton Hall on Tuesday night at Allstate Arena.

If that’s progress, they’ve changed the ­definition on us.

Worse, an air of dysfunction hangs over the program. Senior co-captain Brandon Young was benched for a half-game, allegedly for questioning strategy. Junior Jamee Crockett, a starter in 36 of his 73 career games, has missed half the season on suspension. A sky’s-the-limit athlete when he was recruited out of Crete-Monee three years ago, Crockett has failed to develop as a player, just another guy on a roster full of them.

The real bombshell fell two weeks ago. Senior Cleveland Melvin, the team’s leading scorer three years running, a preseason All-Big East selection and media guide cover boy, was suspended from the team and then asked to leave school, his college career abruptly over. These things happen, but not to your most identifiable player if you’re humming along smoothly.

And DePaul is not. It’s hard to think of Melvin as the face of the team when most Chicagoans wouldn’t recognize him if he walked into their living room, but that’s the state of the
Blue Demons: They have ceased to matter. And they’re trying to build a new facility?

Fine idea. Allstate Arena is a drab, soulless, inconvenient barn. But the season-high crowd for the game on Saturday against Marquette had the place only about half full, and the 9,342 in attendance were decidedly pro-Marquette.

Bad, irrelevant and old is no way to go through life, but that’s where the Blue Demons find themselves: Three seniors and a junior are listed as probable starters for the Seton Hall game. The fifth, freshman Billy Garrett Jr., is a definite keeper, but he might be the only underclassman on the roster of whom that can be said.
Fellow freshman Tommy Hamilton IV can do some things, but he’s hurt a lot and, at 285 pounds, lacks the stamina to play big minutes.

DePaul’s decline is not sudden; the Blue Demons are on their fourth coach since dismantling the House of Meyer 16 years ago. Only Dave Leitao managed a winning record — 58-34 in three seasons — but he was a blatant short-timer, headed back East at the first available opportunity (how did that Virginia thing work out, Dave?).

Pat Kennedy enjoyed two good years by persuading some top Chicago-bred talent to stay home, but Kennedy was a con man who couldn’t sustain the act and was left high and dry when those future pros left early.

Wainwright we have discussed.

Fact is, DePaul is not considered a plum job. Far from it. Which is why a national search and a seven-year contract at $2 million per produced the 56-year-old Purnell, who is now 60 and toting a record worse than Wainwright’s.

Local college hoops fans might as well check the movie listings on Selection Sunday. UIC is worse than DePaul. Loyola has averaged 58 points in four losses since a “signature” victory against Illinois State. Notre Dame, in its current configuration, is overmatched in the ACC. Northwestern’s Wildcats are gritty and smart, just as they were under Bill Carmody. But Chris Collins has coached ’em up, uncomplainingly, and it will be interesting to see what he can do with his own players.

Illinois … sheesh. A recent highlight: John Groce circling back to a recruit and offering an obsequious apology to the kid and his dad after apparently offending them with his indifference.

Wonder if Bob Knight ever did that.

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