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MCGRATH: On-court struggles real issue in DePaul’s attendance problem

DePaul’s Charles McKinney slips between Rutgers defenders Myles Mack (left) Derrick Randall. | AP

DePaul’s Charles McKinney slips between Rutgers defenders Myles Mack (left) and Derrick Randall. | AP

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Updated: March 18, 2013 7:07AM

Talk of a new home for
DePaul basketball has subsided in recent weeks — publicly, at least — as a nine-game losing streak turned the discussion toward how the Blue Demons are playing as opposed to where.

That’s how it goes in big-time college sports.

The losing streak ended Saturday with a 75-69 trimming of Rutgers, a game that reflected where DePaul finds itself these days. The announced crowd of 8,520 showed off Allstate Arena in all its drab, soulless splendor. Despite a spirited effort by the game-production staff, any recruits in the house had to be wondering, ‘‘Why would I want to play here?’’

DePaul says its average home attendance is 7,486 this season, down more than 1,000 from 8,694 last season. Athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto steadfastly has defended the building — in its current form and in a previous life as the Rosemont Horizon. She insists a good team will draw good crowds and neutralize Allstate’s flaws, most notably its 15-mile distance from DePaul’s campus in Lincoln Park.

The Demons play in an increasingly competitive, pro-dominated market that requires something special of a college squad to get noticed. It has been a while since DePaul offered must-see basketball, and Mark Aguirre (or Jabari Parker) isn’t walking through the door any time soon.

Pat Kennedy nudged the needle a bit in the late ’90s by enticing homegrown stars Quentin Richardson and Bobby Simmons into staying home, but what the fast-talking Jersey guy put together was a team, not a program. Kennedy didn’t have enough to get by on after Richardson and Simmons left early for the pros, and nobody minded when DePaul said goodbye to him after a 9-19 season in 2001-02.

Dave Leitao earned three postseason bids and won an NCAA tournament game in his four seasons, but he was an East Coast guy who never really unpacked and settled in as a Chicagoan. It would have taken Final Four money to keep Leitao when he took Virginia’s call after the 2004-05 season, and DePaul didn’t love him that much.

Jerry Wainwright seemed a nice fit as Leitao’s replacement, a locally bred coaching lifer with a sentimental urge to come home and bring DePaul a semblance of the stability it had known during 55 years of Meyerdom. But Wainwright’s arrival coincided with the Demons’ move from Conference USA to the Big East, and . . . hoo, boy. Try to picture ol’ Uncle Al driving his trusty Oldsmobile Cutlass in the Indy 500.

Whether the Demons are overmatched in the Big East is a moot point, with the conference on its deathbed from self-inflicted football wounds, but a 27-107 league record is the equivalent of Uncle Al in his Olds getting lapped at the Brickyard again and again.

You might feel confident saying things will improve in the college-level CYO DePaul is about to join, but the Demons are 13-41 against their fellow Catholic defectors in Big East play.

The talent is better — Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young are legitimate Big East players and Worrel Clahar brings Big East toughness — but the record is only marginally so under Oliver Purnell: 30-57 overall, 6-42 in the Big East. Purnell was given pretty close to Final Four money — and seven years in which to earn it — when Lenti Ponsetto said enough is enough and vowed to hire the best man available after firing Wainwright midway through an 8-23 disaster in 2009-10.

Shane Larkin would look really good in a DePaul uniform, but Barry Larkin’s kid reneged on a commitment and went home to Florida, where he’s lighting it up as the starting point guard for No. 3 Miami. Academic issues and injuries grounded other top recruits, but Purnell isn’t big on excuses. He expects better. Effort is good, but results are what matters, he says. The best players have to be the best players every night, especially in the closing moments of winnable games that weren’t being won, often because of poor decision-making and worse shot selection.

Maybe the game Saturday was a breakthrough. And maybe DePaul will be playing in a brand-new, 10,000-seat facility much closer to campus in, say, two years.

If you build it, they will come — to see a team worth watching.

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