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DePaul looks to usher in new era with move to McCormick Place

The DePaul men's basketball program desperately needs to turn a chapter in its storied history, transitioning out of obscurity and back into the national spotlight.

The Blue Demons are on the verge of a vital step in that process. In 2017, they usher in a new era of DePaul basketball with a move to the brand-new McCormick Place Events Center, located just minutes from downtown Chicago.

DePaul head coach Dave Leitao is no stranger to the positive effect that a new facility can have on a program.

"University of Connecticut has this great brand, and that started with a brand-new building," Leitao said. "I was there when that was being constructed, and I saw the advantages that it created."

Leitao was an assistant coach for the UConn Huskies from 1986 to 1994 and 1996 to 2002. UConn finished construction on a new arena during his first stretch with the Huskies, the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion, which opened on Jan. 21, 1990.

UConn has claimed each of its four national championships, seven of its nine conference titles and has made 10 of its 11 Elite Eight appearances since this date.

New facilities are a major factor in a program's ability to turn the corner, but ultimately, it is just one aspect. Especially when it comes to recruiting.

"I don't know that there is a guy that says ‘I’m not going to go to XYZ university because I want to play in this new arena,'" Leitao said. "You have to give them other reasons."

Facilities may be just one facet of the recruiting process, but it is a crucial one, something evidenced by the Blue Demons' recent success on the recruiting trail.

DePaul possesses its highest ranked recruiting class since 2013, with a trio of three-star prospects in Devin Gage, Brandon Cyrus and Al Eichelberger set to don the Scarlet and Royal Blue next season.

"It definitely helps recruiting," Eichelberger said regarding the new arena. "Recruits always want new and better things, and this shows them that DePaul is improving its facilities. It will definitely have a positive impact on recruits in the future."

Perhaps the greatest benefit to be reaped from the new arena, however, is the ability to establish a true connection to the city of Chicago.

The Blue Demons currently play their home games at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., located over 30 minutes away from DePaul's Lincoln Park campus. The McCormick Place Events Center is being constructed in Chicago's Near South Side neighborhood, cutting that commute in half. Most importantly, the new facility will be located roughly two miles from Chicago's vibrant city center, making DePaul basketball significantly more accessible to the third-largest city in the country.

"I joke about this a lot and say 'DePaul has been and continues to want to be Chicago’s team, but oh by the way, we play in Rosemont.,’" Leitao said. "We've been able to sidestep that for years, and Allstate has been a very good home court for us. But now, we can truly say that we will be the heartbeat of Chicago.

"I use the example of a 10-year old kid who can now travel by car, bus or train to come out and see us play. When you do that at that age, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you see one of our guys and they become an idol of yours. Then, four or five years down the road, you are being recruited by DePaul and you remember those things. You don't have that so much when you are on the outside. So now, being in the community, for a lot of the same reasons that being a part of the community is important, that factors in. It’s much more than this our new arena where we play our games."

Cyrus, who is listed by as the No. 25 shooting guard in the country, is particularly excited about the opportunity to play in the heart of Chicago.

"Having the city of Chicago coming out to watch us play, I think it's going to make people realize how good DePaul basketball can be," Cyrus said. "Just being a part of a school that the city has bought into, and a program that has such great history, they’re going to go crazy for us. It means a lot, and it’s part of why I wanted to go to school there."

Gage, a local high school star that is on a quest to lead Curie High School to a state championship, echoes this sentiment.

"Being near home with all my friends and family being able to come out and see me play, and being able to take this team back to the NCAA Tournament, it means a lot," Gage said. "It definitely played a big role in my decision to come to DePaul. For me as a sophomore to be able to play in this huge new arena with all the fans, it will be really exciting."

It is not just recruits that are enticed by the Blue Demons' move to the McCormick Place Events Center, either. The opportunity for a player to immerse themselves as a well-known figure in the Chicago community is a huge selling point for parents.

"It helps when you have a young man, particularly if he is from this area, to be immersed in this city to where he becomes a household name," Leitao said. "I sell them on the idea that after four years, they graduate and go downtown looking for a job, and people know exactly who they are because they have been invested in them since they left high school. And that is a really, really good thing to sell to a family."

Despite a shiny new arena and the optimism that comes along with such, DePaul has a long way to go on its road back to college basketball glory.  The Blue Demons are staring down a ninth consecutive losing season, providing little promise for a program that has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2004.

But regardless of a recent history that does not exude greatness, the opening of the McCormick Place Events Center is the type of event that has the ability to serve as a turning point in the history of a once-great program. And it must be taken full advantage of.

"Having partaken in that experience in the past, it is big to make that a great experience," Leitao said. "Not just a game, but a weekend. Make it first-class all the way around, and make it so memorable that people will either be glad that they were there, or sorry that they missed out on something great."

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