Purnell looks for DePaul to take next step

CHICAGO -- DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said Wednesday he believes the Blue Demons could jump to the middle of the Big East this season after finishing in last place the last two years.

"That would be an improvement for us to get in the middle," the third-year coach Purnell said prior to practice on Wednesday. "The difference is when you're in the Big East along with several other great conferences in the country, then you got a chance to compete for everything. If we can move up to the middle of the Big East and be competitive with everybody, get some more wins along the way and do a good job in non-conference, now we're talking."

After notching one win in the Big East in Purnell's first season, DePaul took a step forward last season by finishing 3-15 in the conference and being in most of their games. They faltered last season in closing out games. They lost six Big East games they either led or were tied in at halftime.

Purnell is optimistic this year's group can learn to finish those games. Last week's season-opening 91-59 win over UC Riverside gave him some hope.

"I like where we were when we played the other night," Purnell said. "Now if we play that way for two or three games, maybe we are where we were when we left off last year, but you got to get to that point first. Now if you're at a level where you played against Seton Hall (86-58 win last season), some of the others at the end of the year and you close out some games, now you have a totally different scenario at the end."

Purnell said he also felt the program was moving in the right direction because he now possessed a group of experienced and skilled players, such as juniors Cleveland Melvin, Brandon Young and Moses Morgan.

"You got a core group of guys who are experienced," Purnell said. "That's one of the reasons I'm so excited about this season. We've gotten through some tough stretches, but that's what you have to do when you're turning around a program, when you're at rock bottom. I see this team ascending."

DePaul looks to continue rising during the upcoming Cancun Challenge. The Blue Demons host Garner-Webb on Thursday and Austin Peay on Saturday in Rosemont, Ill., before finishing the challenge in Cancun against Wichita State on Nov. 20 and either Iowa or Western Kentucky on Nov. 21.

"I think the main thing is we got to look at this game as the next game on our schedule because it's here, and it's about us establishing good habits," Purnell said. "It's really about us establishing what kind of team we're going to be.

"I liked what I saw in the first game if we can go ahead and say that's who we are -- a team who comes out and plays hard. Even when things don't go well, we just kind of keep grinding. And if we get a team down, we want to be the kind of team that kind of steps on them and finishes things off. That's what we did in the first game. We'd obviously like to do that again."