The play of freshmen Billy Garrett Jr., Tommy Hamilton IV and R.J. Curington has Oliver Purnell excited about DePaul’s basketball future.
The question becomes will that future include Purnell, hired four seasons ago to rekindle excitement in a program that, like several of the Big East’s old guard, has not been nationally relevant for a couple of decades.
Others will decide Purnell’s fate after the season. For now, he simply is doing what he can to get his team ready for Friday’s visit to Omaha to face No. 12 Creighton.
The Blue Demons have lost five straight games. Their 10-13 start, which includes a 2-8 record in league play, leaves Purnell 40-77 overall and 8-56 in the Big East.
The 60-year-old Purnell is in his 25th season as a head coach. He’s been coaching long enough to know that his record is such that some outside observers will question whether he should be asked back for a fifth season at the Chicago school.
He also knows his players can’t help but hear or read things regarding their coach’s future.
“There are a lot of voices out there, and there are a lot more things being said and being written than there used to be,” Purnell said. “That’s part of our players’ existence these days, but we tell them if we’re going to be successful, they can only listen to one collective voice.
“That needs to be ours (coaching staff). We try to approach it that way. I think we’ve been fairly successful with that for the most part, although I’m certainly realistic enough to know that you have to combat some of those various voices at times.’’
For the most part, Purnell said his players have done a good job of battling the adversity that comes with a season where results aren’t matching expectations. There have been some internal problems — leading scorer Cleveland Melvin remains suspended indefinitely and Purnell has had to discipline several other players.
Couple that with injuries and illnesses that any team will encounter over the course of a long season, and it adds up to the Blue Demon leaning on some players they might not have expected to at this point in the season.
Curington is such an example. The 6-foot-4 guard played a total of 24 minutes in DePaul’s first 19 games. He got his chance to contribute when DePaul was missing three starters for a Jan. 25 game against Seton Hall. He responded by scoring 15 points — five more than he had scored all season.
He came back the next game and had 22 points in a loss to Providence before scoring 10 points in Monday’s setback against Georgetown.
“R.J. has played well as of late,’’ Purnell said.
Garrett and Hamilton have been more consistent contributors throughout their first seasons in the program. Garrett is a leading contender for the Big East’s rookie of the year award — he’s won the league’s weekly honor four times this season.
The 6-5 Garrett, who returned to action against Georgetown after missing two games because of illness, ranks third on the team with an 11.9 scoring average and is second on the team with 69 assists.
Hamilton, a 6-11, 284-pound center, is DePaul’s fourth-leading scorer (8.9) and second-leading rebounder (5.4).
“We had some freshmen step up and play well for us,’’ Purnell said. “If they can continue to get better, they can be cornerstone guys for this program. The nucleus is there for the future, but we would really like to make some magic here coming down the stretch as we move toward March.
“There is a lot of basketball yet to be played in February. We’d like to get it started, but we know we’re facing having to try to get it going at the most difficult place to play in the league.’’
Creighton is unbeaten in its 12 home games this season, with all but two of the wins coming by margins of 10 points or more.
Purnell’s team dropped an 81-62 decision to the Bluejays a month ago in Chicago. The Blue Demons came back to win their next two games before dropping five straight by an average margin of 12 points.
Purnell said the last two losses underscore his team’s inability to put together a complete game. The Blue Demons played well in the opening half against Providence but couldn’t hold on in dropping a 77-72 decision. DePaul saw a close game get away from it in the final 10 minutes of Monday’s 71-59 loss to Georgetown.
“We’ve played well in stretches,’’ Purnell said, “but in this league, you have to play 40 minutes.’’
Doing that against Creighton figures to be a tall order, but Purnell’s faith in his players remains high.
“This group has been resilient, they continue to listen and they continue to work to get better,’’ he said. “That’s always a positive. As long as you’re doing that and you’re growing, you always have a chance to catch that late-season magic that everyone is looking to do.
“Even teams that are playing well want to play their best coming down the stretch and even kick it up a notch.”