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Clock ticking for Wainwright

Like DePaul fans, Jerry Wainwright had a different vision for the Blue Demons men's basketball program than where it actually stands after his first four seasons as head coach.

The consensus in the beginning was it would take Wainwright time to build something.

People were willing to be patient, especially if Wainwright could bring consistency to a team that hadn't made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances since the early 1990s. No one certainly expected DePaul to have success in the Big East right away when it joined the conference in his first season. And because Wainwright is a Chicago-area native, people were rooting for him to succeed.

But now after four years, that tide has changed. People aren't so willing to give Wainwright the benefit of their doubts, and their patience has nearly disappeared. Wainwright needs to win, and he needs to do it this season.

Wainwright understands that.

"Oh, sure, absolutely, no question," Wainwright said. "I think our program feels it. I think it embraces it. I don't think we'd want it any other way."

Wainwright understands everyone's frustration. No one, including himself, thought the Blue Demons still would be standing on the Big East's ground floor, still talking about rebuilding at this point of his tenure.

When looking back, he faults only himself for not stockpiling the program with older players in preparation for the early departure of Wilson Chandler for the NBA following the 2006-07 season. He believes he should have gone after junior college players then.

"I made the mistake," he said. "No one else made the mistake. I made us too young.

"The group of kids we have, I'm proud of them. We've only had one transfer. But I thought we would be further ahead in our abilities, especially in the frontcourt."

The numbers speak for themselves. In Wainwright's four seasons, he's compiled a 52-72 record, with his lone winning season coming in Chandler's final year, when the Blue Demons went 20-14 and reached the NIT quarterfinals. In the Big East, DePaul has gone 20-48 in the regular season and 1-2 in the conference tournament. Against in-state opponents, the Blue Demons are 5-6. Against ranked opponents, they're even worse at 4-24.

Last season was the most trying for Wainwright. After a 4-0 start to the season -- their best start since 2002 -- the Blue Demons won only four more games. They went winless in 18 regular-season Big East contests and lost 15 times by double digits, including a 27-point defeat to Northwestern.

With the season's woes came the first real mass of critics to question Wainwright. There was even a Web site calling for his dismissal.

"It was very difficult for all our families," Wainwright said. "Sometimes it gets beyond the professionalism negative, and it gets personal. It's not that you don't expect that in these times, but it wears on your family."

The year also affected DePaul's image among recruits.

"Last season's winless season in Big East play and the overall losses they had were a kick in the gut as far as perception goes," said recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops Report. "Last season was certainly a blow in terms of trying to impress, lure and open the eyes of top high school talent. It's a tough sell after having gone through the season they did. Plain and simple, a lack of success is always going to hurt any program's recruiting."

Despite it all, Wainwright's job was declared safe. Midway through last season, DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto voiced her support for Wainwright, whose contract runs through 2012 after being given an extension following the team's NIT appearance in his second season.

His assistants weren't so lucky, though. All three –- Gary DeCesare, Ramon Williams and Wainwright's son, Scott -- left the program after the season. Technically, all three were said to "resign," but it is suspected they were asked to leave.

Wainwright wouldn't go into details.

"That's really not something I'm in position to talk about," he said. "Guys on the staff made decisions and decided to do some things more in mutual agreement than what people will read in the outside. It turned [out] beneficial for all sides."

DeCesare also wouldn't comment when reached last week. He will remain in the area, as he was hired in May to be the varsity boys basketball coach at St. Rita High School.

To replace them, Wainwright went after known recruiters Tracy Webster and Billy Garrett and former Blue Demons star David Booth. Webster, who was previously at Illinois and Kentucky, and Garrett, who was last at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, have landed multiple Chicago-area recruits over the years. Booth was a scout for the Memphis Grizzlies last season.

For Webster, the job interested him because of the challenge it presented.

"I love it," Webster said. "People might say I'm crazy. DePaul has a lot to offer. It can be a special place. There's a vision to get DePaul back to what it once was."

Part of that vision is to have Chicago's top prep players coming to DePaul again. Lately, the Blue Demons' stars have been out-of-area recruits like Chandler and Dar Tucker.

Mac Koshwal, who attended Julian High School and Boys To Men Academy, has been the biggest name from Chicago to play for DePaul in some time. Webster believes DePaul can again bring in commitments from the likes of Ronnie Fields, Steven Hunter, Paul McPherson, Quentin Richardson, Imari Sawyer, Bobby Simmons and Lance Williams.

"I know it can happen again," Webster said.

What it may take is just one big Chicago name to commit. Derrick Rose did consider the Blue Demons late into his process.

"In order to grab the attention of in-state recruits -- and I mean the difference-making type of recruits -- DePaul is going to have to establish some sort of success on the court or be blessed with the revelation of a star-studded recruit wanting to be the guy to change things around," Henricksen said. "In this day and age those wanting-to-be-different type of kids are tough to find, so that will be difficult to rely on. There is not going to be a quick fix, but if they can infuse a little higher level talent than what they have, coach them up and get back to respectability, then you can open some more recruiting doors.

"When the momentum starts to swing upward, when the program starts to show signs of life again, that's when the new assistants on staff will have more ammunition to go out and recruit the type of players that can get DePaul back to where it hopes to be. That creates other avenues for success, such as more TV exposure, a positive media spin on the program, moving some games to the United Center, becoming a viable option for the local talent."

Illinois Warriors club coach Larry Butler thought he had two potential DePaul recruits last season in Drew Crawford and Darius Smith if the Blue Demons had pursued them earlier. Crawford ended up at Northwestern while Smith signed with Connecticut.

"My biggest thing with them before was they always targeted the wrong guys," Butler said. "They jumped on guys too late. They spent too much time working kids they couldn't get. The kids they could have landed they come on late. I thought last year with Drew Crawford and Darius Smith, they should have been all over them. They got in too late.

"I think they're working and trying to rebuild things. I think they've regrouped and tried to move in a different direction with things. They're going to get it done, but it's going to take a minute."

If DePaul's new staff can make a recruiting break this offseason, it would help relieve some of the pressure on the season. While the Blue Demons should be better this season, they still have plenty of concerns. They lost leading scorer Tucker to the NBA
draft after his sophomore season. Will Walker, the team's lone senior, and Koshwal, who pulled his name from the draft, will be heavily relied upon to step up their games. DePaul will also need junior college recruit Mike Stovall, a 6-foot-5 forward, and a trio of sophomores -- 6-11 Krys Faber, 6-9 Devin Hill and 6-6 Eric Wallace -- to emerge. Wainwright says Wallace, who sat out last season after transferring from Ohio State, is one of the five best athletes he's ever been around.

Wainwright knows he has little time to improve, but he is optimistic for the future. He and his players have taken their lumps and are ready to move on.

"I think we'll be better for all that happened to us," Wainwright said. "The kids never pointed fingers. They did a great job of holding together. It wasn't easy for any of us. No one is excited about what happened. I can tell you no one is embarrassed."

Koshwal echoed that statement, but he can't imagine having to endure another similar year. He's out to not to let it happen.

"That's a motivation," Koshwal said. "[We've] got to change some things. [We've] got to work hard. It's got to be a good season. Definitely can't have the same season as we had last year. It was definitely tough. It made us stronger. It made us come closer."