Wintrust Arena is a modern basketball spectacle. At a capacity of 10,387, it is sized perfectly for College Basketball. All seats are close to the action and have good views. The seats are wide and cushioned, rather than the cramped bleachers that most colleges feature. It is easily accessible by public transit. But for DePaul’s victory over Georgetown on Wednesday, the stadium was largely empty. DePaul has been so bad for so long that they don’t make much of a dent in the Chicago sports scene.
From 1975 to 1992, DePaul made 14 NCAA tournament appearances in 17 seasons. They appeared in four Sweet Sixteens, an Elite Eight, and a Final Four. They achieved a winning record every season. Since then, they have reached the NCAA Tournament twice, in 2000 and 2004. They did not make it past the second round either time. They have not had a winning record since the 2006–07 season, although that may change this year. Currently they are 15–14, with a 7–11 record in the Big East. They are not in the mix for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Why hasn’t DePaul been able to achieve recent success? Loyola, another school in Chicago, made the Final Four just last season. Loyola plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, a mid-major conference lacking the prestige of DePaul’s Big East. The Missouri Valley often does not send multiple teams in a season to the NCAA Tournament, meaning Loyola usually has to win the conference to go to the big dance. But that is not the case for DePaul. Last season, six out of the ten Big East schools made the tournament. It should be easier for them to succeed than Loyola, not harder.
DePaul played from 1980 until 2017 at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, out by O’Hare. As any Chicagoan knows, this is a trek from DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, or really from anywhere in the city. Allstate Arena feels sterile and lacked character. As they team started doing more and more poorly, the building was nearly always empty. Students did not want to make the trip out just to see losing basketball. It became a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Did students stop going because the team was bad, or did the team become bad because students stopped going? Either way, it did not help recruiting.
There are plenty of good players who come out of the Chicago area every year. Selling Chicago area recruits on the ability to play close to home, in front of their loved ones, should not be too difficult. This is especially true now that the team plays in the South Loop, close to the Red and Green Lines of the El. If the Blue Demons can lock down a core of Chicago players, they can then supplement those players with recruits from other areas of the country.
To lock down a Chicago core, it is crucial that DePaul’s coaching staff maintains good relationships with Chicago-area high school coaches. DePaul’s coaches need to become fixtures at area high school and AAU basketball events. If they can do this, they should be able to land some big recruits in the area. This is especially true if DePaul is offering $200K to recruits, as they have been accused of doing. But they should be able to land some local recruits without doing so.
The local schools are all down. Illinois is in the midst of a fallow period, and Northwestern has never been a particularly strong program. Notre Dame has even been down this season. Chicago is ripe for the taking.
DePaul does have a solid recruiting class coming in next year, ranked 23rd in the country by ESPN, 26th by 247Sports, and 33rd by Rivals. The class includes Point Guard Markese Jacobs of Uplift Community High School in Chicago. Previously committed to Kansas, Jacobs is ranked as one of the top players from Chicago by all three recruiting services. It is huge for DePaul to land him. If he succeeds, city high schoolers can look to him as proof they can also be successful at DePaul. He should not only help DePaul on the court this season, but also in recruiting in the future.
The class also includes Forward Romeo Weems from New Haven, Michigan. Weems committed to DePaul over Michigan State, and is ranked as one of the top 100 players in the country by all 3 recruiting services. While DePaul loses a trio of valuable seniors, including star Max Strus, they should still have a lot of talent next year. If they can keep building through recruiting the area, they can return to college basketball’s big time soon enough.