PROVIDENCE, R.I.- You have to think Oliver Purnell is starting to run out of time at DePaul. Simply put, the program isn’t in a good place right now, and the Blue Demons’ 84-61 loss at Providence is only part of it.
Purnell is nearing the end of his fourth year at the school, and it’s tough to say the program is better off than before he came to Chicago. In those nearly four seasons, the Blue Demons are 40-80. The picture doesn’t look much brighter for next season, either, given the current personnel, as they start three freshmen right now and don’t really have an upperclassman who looks like a go-to guy for next season.
None of this is to say that Purnell is likely to be let go at the end of this season. Athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto is not on record as saying anything so much as hinting that Purnell is on the hot seat. But progress has been minimal, and given how long coaches often get to try to turn a program around it doesn’t look good right now.
This season started with a little promise, but once they went to Kansas City in the CBE Classic and lost both games by double digits, you could get the sense that this season wasn’t going to be much different from the last three, or even most of the ones before it during the program’s Big East days. Now they are mired in a season-long eight-game losing streak, their best player is long gone and the are struggling all over.
The Blue Demons have struggled offensively, shooting below 43 percent from the field, including under 41 percent in Big East play. They aren’t any better defensively, as opponents shoot 47 percent from the field against them, with Big East opponents making over 50 percent of their shots. Purnell’s teams are known for pressing and forcing turnovers, but this team forces less than 14 per game. They have a negative turnover margin, and in Big East play they are getting out-rebounded, something that happened again on Saturday by a 37-30 margin.
As if that’s not bad enough, Cleveland Melvin, their best player during the Purnell era, is no longer enrolled at the school as of less than a week ago. Melvin was the Big East Rookie of the Year three years ago and had blossomed, even shooting 47 percent on three-pointers this season. He missed the previous four games before the announcement came that he was no longer enrolled, and will finish sixth all-time in scoring at the school and had an outside shot at climbing into third or even second if he played the rest of the way.
Without Melvin, DePaul looked over-matched at Providence on Saturday, especially in the first half. While Providence could be an NCAA Tournament team, they are hardly a powerhouse, so for the Blue Demons to look that bad isn’t a good statement for them. They played better in the second half, but in the end they only broke even as both teams scored 35 points in the second frame.
“It’s a difficult stretch, and I think part of that came out in frustration when the kids came out in the first half,” Purnell said. “I’m glad to see that they righted themselves, and understood that you’ve got to decide how you want to play, how you want to look, and if you want to win, you’ve got to play well. No one’s going to feel sorry for you.”
DePaul has struggled ever since joining the Big East, and Purnell is just the latest to try to resurrect the program. Other than a 9-7 record in their second season, the Blue Demons have lost a double-digit number of Big East games in every season they have been in the conference, including a three-year stretch where they went 2-52. That the Blue Demons haven’t become winners under Purnell, while Clemson is also in pretty good shape, is not an indictment of him as a coach. His record speaks for itself. Many were shocked that he left Clemson for DePaul, and it’s even easier to wonder why he made the move now. He didn’t suddenly become a bad coach; he took a job at a place where it’s now very difficult to win.
Purnell signed a seven-year contract for significantly more than what he made annually at Clemson, so if the school does let him go they have a hefty amount to pay him with three years remaining. That alone is reason to think he will at least make it to next season. The new McCormick Place Events Center in the South Loop in downtown Chicago will open in November 2016, and the Blue Demons will play their home games there. If they want to make a splash with a new coach before then and, one would think the school would wait a little longer before deciding he isn’t the one to usher in the new arena.
DePaul is a long way from the days when it was a powerhouse. They had good years in Conference USA before coming to the Big East. It’s become one of the toughest jobs in high-major college basketball, and Oliver Purnell’s inability to make much progress is further proof of that. How much time he has left – or whether or not it will make a difference in the program’s near-term fortunes – is debatable.