Basketball fans in Chicago have to be wondering what DePaul coach Dave Leitao could possibly do for an encore.
In just two years at the helm, Leitao has brought the DePaul program back to respectability and back to the postseason. The Blue Demons have made trips to the NIT and NCAA; they won just their second conference title in school history; and they advanced farther in the NCAA tournament than they had in 15 years.
Even Leitao cannot believe the success he has had in Chicago. After inheriting a squad that won just nine games, Leitao has won 38 games the last two years.
"The fortunate thing for us is the first year we went to the NIT and the second year we went to the NCAA," Leitao said. "It kind of happened quicker than anyone anticipated, quicker than I anticipated. Now it's our goal to get back to where we were. We've got to guard against a bump in the road."
That will take some work. DePaul loses almost 40 percent of its scoring from last season with Delonte Holland and Andre Brown no longer around. The nine returning lettermen, including three starters, will have to make up for a talent level that even Leitao admits is down slightly.
Still, the Blue Demons have a well-rounded lineup, experienced players at every spot and several newcomers who will contribute immediately. Leitao said last season's late run that included 15 wins in the last 19 games has carried over to the summer. "We maximized ourselves pretty well last year," Leitao said. "But I always tell them, as hard as it was to get there, it's even that much harder to stay there."
FRONTCOURTThe frontcourt could determine the Blue Demons' fate this season. DePaul has no player taller than 6-foot-9 and only one player who has averaged more than three points per game in his college career.
Quemont Greer is that player, and he's one of the league's top rebounders. Greer, however, needs to increase his offensive production for DePaul to be successful.
Behind Greer, there are several question marks. Marlon Brumfield could be an answer if he continues to improve after coming off knee surgery in the spring of '03. Brumfield can control the paint on defense and on the boards, which should free up Greer to focus more on offense.
Another possible answer could come from two sophomores, Lorenzo Thompson and Marcus Heard. Like Brumfield, Thompson has the size to dominate the paint but failed to do so in limited playing time as a freshman. Heard is one of the team's best outside shooters.
Two newcomers could help. Wesley Green is coming off a medical redshirt (shoulder). Jamal Nichols, a former top high school player from Philadelphia, averaged 24 points and 14 rebounds last season in junior college.
BACKCOURTThe Blue Demons will lean on their three veteran guards -- Drake Diener, Sammy Mejia, and LeVar Seals -- for most of the minutes and production in the backcourt. And that is fine with the coach.
Leitao's feelings of ease start with the ball in Mejia's hands. As a freshman, Mejia started 31 games, had 140 assists to 90 turnovers and shot 37 percent from 3-point range. At 6-6, Mejia has NBA scouts drooling. "He made a difficult transition very well," Leitao said. "Like the older guys, if he can improve on what he did last year he is going to have a very good season."
Leitao also expects a big season from Diener, who likely will end his career as the top 3-point and free throw shooter in school history.
And if any DePaul fans start feeling nervous, Seals will calm them with his quick hands and floor leadership. If Seals can add scoring to his arsenal, he could earn a permanent spot in the starting lineup.
FINAL ANALYSISLeitao said this year will be his toughest challenge yet. But if the trio of guards builds on the past two seasons and if a couple of the post players live up to their potential, Leitao could surprise himself again this season. With a move to the Big East coming in 2005, this could be the last time that surprise comes so easily.