When it comes to college sports, I’m an Illini fanatic first and foremost, which is reflected in my blog. However, in the wake of my attending DePaul’s solid 73-67 victory over old Catholic school/new Big East Conference rival Notre Dame on Saturday, let’s take a moment to examine the state of my law school alma mater’s basketball program.
DePaul has been extremely inconsistent so far in its inaugural season with Jerry Wainwright at the coaching helm. The Demons have had solid wins against Wake Forest, Northwestern, and Notre Dame, but were handled by smaller schools such as Ol’ Dirty University and Northern Illinois. At this point, DePaul is a bubble team for this year’s NCAA Tournament at best, particularly with the team facing its first season in the brutal and bloated Big East. With the development of junior guard Sammy Mejia and promising freshman forward Wilson Chandler (21 points and 12 rebounds against the Irish on Saturday), however, look for the Blue Demons to compete in the upper echelon of the Big East in the 2006-07.
As for the long-term state of the DePaul program, there are two major issues – the first is positive and the second is negative. First, Big East membership will result in an initial boon to DePaul in terms local interest in the Chicago media market. DePaul gets to cement its long-standing rivalries with Midwestern Catholic universities Notre Dame and Marquette while establishing new ties East Coast spiritual cousins such as St. John’s and Georgetown.
At the same time, being able to play Big East heavyweights like Syracuse and UConn on a regular basis gives DePaul the chance to recapture some of the media attention that the school used to receive up until the end of the 1980s. Before the arrival of Michael Jordan, DePaul was the biggest sports story in Chicago every winter. Today, though, the Illini and the Big Ten clearly receive the lion’s share of college sports coverage in Chicago (those who might disagree should check the front of the sports sections of the Chicago Tribune from this past Friday and Sunday – blanket coverage of the Illini games against MSU and Iowa relegated the Bulls, Blackhawks, the DePaul-Notre Dame game, and the NFL playoffs to spots deep inside the paper).
Still, it’s not just enough for DePaul to simply join the Big East – the Demons need to establish a winning program within that conference. Otherwise, DePaul is going to be to the Big East what Northwestern basketball is to the Big Ten: a Chicago outpost whose arena is filled up every game with fans of the opponents.
Speaking of the arena, DePaul’s other major issue is that the team’s home gym is going to be an albatross on the program for the foreseeable future. DePaul is blessed with arguably the best campus location of any urban college in the nation in Lincoln Park (Greenwich Village is funky but NYU really doesn’t have a true campus like DePaul, while Lincoln Park has a lot more going on both day and night than Georgetown), which is a huge reason why the school consistently has the happiest student body anywhere.
Yet, instead of having students and alums take in college basketball in a fantastic city neighborhood setting that would rival the experience of going to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, DePaul fans need to schlep up to an arena 30 minutes from campus where you need to duck the airplanes flying over the parking lot and pay $5 for a Polish sausage that isn’t half as tasty as the old $2 Polish-and-fries combo at the now-defunct Demon Dogs under the Fullerton El tracks (by the way, not being able stumble into Demon Dogs after a long evening of, er, studying in Lincoln Park is one of the top ten things I miss about living in the city – how dare the CTA take it all away).
The university wants an on-campus arena, the students want an on-campus arena, the alums want an on-campus arena, and recruits want an on-campus arena. However, there’s a realization by all parties that this probably will never happen. Even if there were enough land available in Lincoln Park to build a facility, the cost to buy such land would be so astronomical that a 10,000 to 15,000-seat basketball arena would be more expensive to construct than the United Center or the new Soldier Field. DePaul’s Big East affiliation will only go so far in attracting talent when recruits see the school’s Big Ten competitors with first-class on-campus facilities that teem with rabid students and fans every game. If St. John’s is having trouble getting recruits to come because of the lack of an on-campus arena and the Red Storm play in the Mecca of Basketball A.K.A. Madison Square Garden, think of the disadvantage DePaul faces when its arena is the aging Allstate Arena next to a bunch of O’Hare runways.
The only way I can see the stadium situation being mitigated is if DePaul can move its home games to the United Center. At least the games would be a lot closer for students and playing in the House that Jordan Built would be a bit better of a selling point for recruits. Unfortunately, this isn’t even a possibility for several years since the City of Rosemont agreed to remodel Allstate Arena in exchange for DePaul committing to playing its home schedule there for the foreseeable future (this was the reason why Allstate Arena was able to snag last year’s NCAA Chicago Regional Final A.K.A. the greatest game I have ever seen in any sport at any level – you Illini fans don’t need any explanation).
So, DePaul’s basketball program is looking upward as a new Big East member, but the Blue Demons will also be constantly fighting an uphill battle in recruiting as long as they play in Rosemont. Of course, there are few programs that can lay claim to having everything perfect, so here’s to hoping that Jerry Wainwright can bring back the buzz and add to the tradition of DePaul basketball that was advanced by another attendee of Saturday’s game: the great Ray Meyer.