The end came too soon for DePaul, its tumultuous season cut short on the home court of a longtime rival.
There would be no New York trip for the Blue Demons, just a solemn bus ride home from South Bend, Ind., after a 66-61 loss to Notre Dame. For first-year coach Jerry Wainwright and his young team, the book had closed too soon – just when they were starting to turn a page or two.
"We were very disappointed," Wainwright said. "There was a lot of pain."
Despite the spring sting of not reaching the Big East tournament, DePaul's problems were both obvious and fixable. Whether it was missed free throws or suspensions, the Demons repeatedly hurt themselves in 2005-06, and most of their errors could be traced to inexperience.
In the offseason, DePaul got stronger, smarter and, most importantly, older. The Demons return 94 percent of their scoring and four starters, including all-Big East candidates Wilson Chandler, Sammy Mejia and Karron Clarke. As a result, DePaul has been tabbed a sleeper team in the Big East, much like Georgetown was before last season.
"We have some great headlines, some great chapter headings," Wainwright said. "I don't know if we have any content, though. It comes down to all the clichés: the chemistry, the leadership and the carryover.
"We can't start where we started last year. We have to start where we ended and push forward."
To reach its goal, DePaul will draw upon familiar sources as well as some new ones.
Mejia, who enters his fourth year as a starting guard, is one of the Big East's most experienced players (1,029 points, 307 assists). As DePaul's designated lock-down defender last season, Mejia held his own against many of the league's best.
Where he must improve is offensive consistency. His scoring totals fluctuated like a seismograph in 2005-06, and he struggled at the foul line in crunch time.
"He absolutely sacrificed his offense for his defense, and we needed that," Wainwright said. "He improved in my mind dramatically as the year went on in terms of his game. He has a chance to have a tremendous senior year."
The expectations are equally high for Chandler, a unanimous selection to the Big East's All-Rookie team after ranking 10th in the league in rebounding (7.2 rpg) and 11th in blocked shots (1.56 bpg). Wainwright calls the 6-8, 230-pound Chandler the best instinctive young defender he's ever coached.
But Chandler's instincts must improve off the court. Last year he was suspended two games and sat out the first half of DePaul's season opener because of a minor team rules violation.
"At the end of the season, I played much better," Chandler said. "I'm just staying focused, not letting stuff get me out of my game. My coach wants me to be more vocal this year, so I've got to work on that."
For Wainwright, Chandler's role is clear.
"Later in the year he really came to grips with the fact with, ‘You know what, you're the guy,'" Wainwright said. "Let's face it: he is the guy. There's no getting around the fact that there are certain guys that the ball should go through, and he's got that kind of talent."
Mejia and Chandler are DePaul's frontmen this season, but the team's postseason hopes likely rest with the supporting cast of Jabari Currie, Clarke, Draelon Burns, Wesley Green, Cliff Clinkscales and Marcus Heard.
Wainwright said Heard, who averaged just 11.8 minutes per game last year, improved more than any other player during the offseason. Also making strides were Burns, the team's second leading scorer last year (11.6 ppg), and Currie, who fought through a back injury to lead the offense.
"We set the expectations very high for ourselves," Burns said.
With freshman guard Will Walker entering the mix, Currie likely will play more shooting guard so he can focus more on scoring. DePaul was at its best last year when multiple players handled the ball, and Wainwright wants to use multiple backcourt combinations this year.
"For us to be good, you need options," Wainwright said.
One of those options is Clarke, who averaged 10 points and led the team in 3-point shooting percentage (42.7) as a sophomore. Arguably the team's best athlete, Clarke enters the season looking for consistency.
"He can't go from 22 (points) and 14 (rebounds) to 6 and 2," Wainwright said. "Last year when (opponents) made attempts to take him out, they were able to. You've got to be able to sit down and say, ‘Karron's getting 15 and 7.'
"If that happens, not only will he be all-conference, but we'll be pretty good."
Given a roster that includes Mejia, Chandler, Clarke and Burns, it might seem odd that the man many point to as the key to the season played only 16 games last year. Center Wesley Green was plagued by injuries and disciplinary problems, which nearly got him kicked off the team.
"We banished him," Wainwright said. "He earned his way back in."
So why is DePaul putting its trust in Green? Simple.
"He's good and he's big," Wainwright said.
Green's role became even bigger after Keith Butler was suspended indefinitely for violating team policy. At 6-9 and 295 pounds, Green must increase his endurance in games to become the focal point of DePaul's passing attack.
The Demons also need help from senior forward/center Lorenzo Thompson, who lost weight during the offseason but has yet to produce in college.
"With Lorenzo, it's staying power," Wainwright said. "With Wes, let's just hope the kid has some good luck. He was really playing good last year (before a foot injury)."
Walker could play significant minutes this season, while fellow freshman Thijin Moses also will see the floor. The 6-8 Moses brings a strong perimeter shot to a team that finished 15th in the Big East in 3-point shooting percentage (31.5).
"There should be high expectations," Moses said. "We want to do better than last year."
The freshmen won't have to wait for Big East play to get a taste of first-rate competition.
DePaul's non-conference schedule includes games against national-championship contender Kansas, as well as California, Wake Forest and UAB. The Demons face Kentucky in the first round of the Maui Invitational, a tournament that also features UCLA, Memphis, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma.
"I'm going to be criticized again for over-scheduling," Wainwright said. "There's a lot of choices of things to do in Chicago, but if you're a feel-good team, people will follow you and they will respect the type of kid that isn't afraid to play the best.
"Am I putting them behind the 8-ball? Maybe. Am I calling our kids out? Maybe. The internal pressure in our program is what will make it go. It will shield us from any external pressure."
Adam Rittenberg covers DePaul and Northwestern men's basketball for the Daily Herald. You can also read his blog during the college basketball season at…
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