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Talented junior foursome puts DePaul basketball in position to ‘turn the corner’

DePaul coach Oliver Purnell left gives instructions ClevelMelvduring first half their NCAA college basketball game against Louisville Louisville Ky. Saturday

DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, left, gives instructions to Cleveland Melvin during the first half of their NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

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Updated: December 10, 2012 6:33AM

His third season at DePaul begins in a too familiar way for coach Oliver Purnell — with a season-ending injury to a player.

Freshman forward DeJuan Marerro will miss the season after suffering a torn ACL in his right knee last month. Last season, junior forward Tony Freeland and freshman Montray Clemons were lost to injury before the season began.

But there is something else familiar to Purnell about this third season with the Blue Demons, one that looks to be more promising.

“The reason I’m excited is because I’ve done this four times,’’ he said of taking over struggling programs. “This is my fifth — and the third year is when things turn. That’s the case now.’’

Purnell might be biased, but there are outside voices saying the same thing about the Blue Demons.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino — whose Cardinals are ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll after their surprising March run to the Final Four — predicts DePaul will be the Big East’s “sleeper team.’’

Pitino sees from the outside what Purnell is counting on as a coach — a group of experienced returning players who have been hardened by the struggles of the last three years.

“The big reason I’m excited is because of our core leadership group of juniors,’’ Purnell said.

It is a foursome that includes the conference’s top returning scorer in 6-8 Cleveland Melvin, accomplished point guard Brandon Young, shooting specialist Moses Morgan and 6-9 shot-blocker ­Donnavan Kirk.

In a changing Big East landscape, Melvin (17.5 points per game, 7.4 rebounds last season) will be among a handful of players drawing national attention. He already is on the radar of NBA teams. But the Baltimore native insists he has a singular purpose — to get DePaul into the postseason.

“Things are going to change this year,’’ he said. “A lot of people expect us to be at the bottom of the Big East again, but we have to make a statement. We have the right pieces now.’’

Melvin’s teammates see in him the qualities Purnell craves.

“Cleve is one of the hardest workers on the team,’’ Kirk said. “Cleve and Moses and Brandon are great examples of what coach talks about.

“But it takes a whole team to understand roles,’’ he added. “I look at this year as definitely a year [in which] we make a jump. We have good freshmen coming in, and we’ll have depth. But we’ll also have experience, and that means so much.’’

The complementary pieces will include sophomore Jamee Crockett, the 6-4 Chicago-area native who was a major contributor as a freshman; senior guard Worrel Clahar, who became a key backcourt backup; and sophomore guard Charles McKinney, who was a starter part of last season.

“We have to become a better defensive team,’’ Purnell said. “We have to rebound better. But if we continue to do this, this team has tremendous potential.

“I was disappointed we didn’t turn the corner a year earlier, but I think we will, and our group ­believes they will.’’

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