This wasn’t one of those moral victories, a loss DePaul could build from, or even a positive sign for the future of the program. Kelly wasn’t cracking any smiles.
No, this was one Kelly believed DePaul had given away. Despite the Blue Demons being in last place in the Big East, having won one conference game and Villanova being ranked No. 14 in the country, Kelly was confident DePaul would win Saturday, and he was crushed when it didn’t.
“Yeah, it hurt,” said Kelly, who scored a career-high 25 points in the loss. “It hurt a lot.”
That mentality in itself is a major step forward for the program. Expectations are changing.
The Blue Demons certainly aren’t okay with being the laughingstock of the best conference in the country. They also aren’t okay with shooting for simply being competitive in the best conference in the country. The Blue Demons want to be the best team in the best conference in the country.
“We know that we can play with these teams in the Big East,” Kelly said. “We know we belong.”
DePaul’s goal is still long-term. The Blue Demons have 15 other conference teams, and probably a season or two of up-and-down performances, still standing between them and what they seek in the Big East.
First-year DePaul coach Oliver Purnell knows that as well as anyone.
One of the qualities that have made Purnell successful wherever he has gone is he understands time is one of the ingredients to turning a program around. From the press conference introducing him as DePaul’s coach in April to Saturday’s postgame one, Purnell has realized the Blue Demons’ rise would be have to be a process. They weren’t going to win a dozen games in the Big East in his first year. He was more hopeful they would win a couple.
DePaul’s ascent would only occur by taking the necessary steps. Those included better recruiting, the players buying into and understanding Purnell’s system, enduring possibly a lot of failures early on, making sure to learn from those failures, tasting a bit success and never losing confidence.
As expected, DePaul’s season has been a trying one. The Blue Demons lost at Indiana State by 22 points. They were beaten by non-conference opponents Western Carolina, Cal State Northridge and Ball State, teams they had no business losing to. They took their lumps in the Big East, losing their first 12 conference games.
But now the Blue Demons are now starting to see the light. In February, they’ve battled with Louisville to a four-point game, lost by three to Cincinnati, cut a 17-point deficit down to seven in the final minutes against West Virginia, defeated Providence on Thursday to end their 25-game conference losing streak and their 28-game conference road losing streak and probably should have beaten Villanova on Saturday.
“We played well enough to win tonight,” Purnell said. “I still don’t think we’re playing to our very best, but obviously we’re playing pretty good basketball over the last four or five games.
“We’re becoming a more dangerous team each and every day. I told the guys, to me it’s clear that if we play better, we can play with anyone in our league. I still don’t think we’ve played our best.”
“I still believe that we can do some things,” Kelly said. “I look forward to the Big East [tournament.] We’re going to be some problems for people if we can play like this.”