The coaching job at DePaul should be one of the most coveted gigs in the nation. The obvious draw is that there are scores of talented players residing just an El ride away from the leafy campus in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Ray Meyer knew how to mine the area during his 42 seasons on the Blue Demons’ bench, luring the city’s top talent from George Mikan in the 1940s to Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings in the late 1970s. Joey Meyer took over for his father in 1984, but eventually lost the stranglehold that his father had on Chicago’s prep talent and was fired after a 3-23 nadir in 1996-’97.
So Pat Kennedy knew what he had to do when he became DePaul’s first non-Meyer coach in over a half-century. After a seven-victory first season, Kennedy won over several of Chicago’s top players, Whitney Young’s Quentin Richardson, Simeon’s Bobby Simmons and Julian’s Lance Williams. He also canvassed the junior-college circuit and brought home Paul McPherson, a former South Shore standout. In 1998-’99, DePaul would have a starting lineup with three former Chicago Public League players for the first time since 1981-’82.
The Blue Demons went 18-13, played in the NIT and then scored a commitment from Steven Hunter, a 7-footer out of traditional Illinois power Proviso East. The pieces were now in place for a revival at the Catholic university. Expectations were atmospheric for 1999-2000, and in their fifth game that season the resurgent Blue Demons took on modern-day power Duke on Dec. 14 in Durham, N.C.
Kennedy also had a personal mark to settle in that game. As coach of Florida State, he had stacked the team with the likes of Sam Cassell, Bobby Sura and Charlie Ward, but he had never won at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Between Duke and DePaul, there was plenty of youthful talent on display. Four of the Blue Demons’ starters — Richardson, Simmons, Hunter and McPherson — went on to play in the NBA. Duke was blending top recruits Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Jason Williams with veterans Nate James, Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier.
Kennedy played to the strengths of his young stars, putting them in a trapping zone press. Duke was overwhelmed by the Blue Demons’ athleticism, committing seven turnovers in the first seven minutes and falling into a 15-4 hole.
DePaul never let Duke take the lead in the first half, and the Blue Demons were playing like they desperately wanted a signature victory. But with the distance of history, the flaws in the star players are evident.
In one first-half sequence, McPherson showed his tantalizing-yet-infuriating game. On a fast-break, McPherson took off a foot inside the free-throw line and with his 40-inch vertical leap was able to get by Carrawell at the rim. But McPherson couldn’t finish, leaving the layup short. He hustled back on defense and, using those considerable athletic gifts, was in position to challenge a close-range shot by James. However, James was fouled on the play, and McPherson compounded the mistake by goaltending the shot. The physical tools eventually got McPherson a shot in the NBA, but he couldn’t last longer than 55 games with the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors.
Hunter probably showed the biggest upside against Duke. He was active around the basket, getting 13 points and eight rebounds in the first 20 minutes. But he never seemed comfortable with his back to basket, and his post moves were limited. That vexing combination keeps getting Hunter jobs in the NBA (he’s with the Memphis Grizzlies this season), but he never lasts long with one team (five cities in eight seasons). His game against Duke — 21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks — might be the best of his entire body of work in basketball.
Simmons was always a quiet presence. He hit a couple mid-range jumpers against Duke in the first half. Then he would disappear for long stretches before pulling down a big rebound. He’s been the same way in the NBA, always showing enough to get a big contract, then failing to deliver on the promise he had shown (just ask Milwaukee Bucks fans). Still, without garnering much notice, Simmons had 14 points and 10 rebounds against Duke.
Richardson was the key to Kennedy’s rebuilding effort. He averaged over 20 points per game in that 1999-2000 season, but he struggled to get his shot off against James and Carrawell despite repeated adulations from announcers Dick Vitale and Mike Tirico that Richardson was the most talented player on the court. The idea of Quentin Richardson has always been better than the reality, which holds true on the professional level. Against Duke, Richardson would need 21 shots to get his 20 points.
Duke rallied from a 50-38 deficit to take a 66-60 lead. But DePaul didn’t melt in the Cameron pressure cooker and bounced back to force overtime. In the extra period, Richardson gave the Blue Demons an 82-79 lead on a put-back, and Simmons hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 83-81 advantage with 24 seconds left. With all the talent on the court, it was shocking to see goofy big man Nick Horvath bank in a three-pointer that gave Duke an 84-83 lead. Richardson was way off on his driving shot in the closing seconds, and DePaul’s chances at a defining victory were over. Soon the glimmer of hope for the DePaul program would fade as well.
Like Michigan’s Fab Five, who lost three times to Duke, DePaul’s wunderkinds made a valiant effort against the establishment but couldn’t break through. The Blue Demons would finish 21-12 and lose in overtime to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Richardson and McPherson would bounce to the NBA after the season. Simmons and Hunter would follow suit after a disappointing 12-18 season in 2000-’01.
After that, Kennedy persuaded Eddy Curry to sign with DePaul, but the Thornwood star opted for the NBA draft. The Chicago pipeline soon dried up for Kennedy, and he took a buyout after finishing 9-19 in 2001-’02. Dave Leitao and Jerry Wainwright didn’t have much success in the local market, either, letting top Chicago stars like Evan Turner and Derrick Rose get out of town. Wainwright was fired 15 games into this season, with DePaul mired in a 22-game losing streak in the Big East.
So the job at DePaul will be open again after another disappointing season ends. The blueprint for success at the school is apparent, the Blue Demons just need to find a coach that can finish what Kennedy couldn’t.