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updated: 11/3/2010 12:22 PM

Purnell tries to turn around DePaul

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Associated Press

All around him at Big East media day, people were practically giggling about his program and new DePaul coach Oliver Purnell was seething.

It was one rude welcome. He could be in for another this season.

The Blue Demons were picked to finish last in the preseason coaches' poll and given their recent history, it's not hard to see why -- whether Purnell likes it or not.

"It was my sense there was a little smirking and snickering going on when our name was mentioned, and that bothers me," he said. "I take offense to it not only for myself personally but for our team. But having said that, we have an opportunity to do something about that on the court. Not anytime soon, but that's certainly something that we're going to remember, and that's there. Those other voices are there. It's up to us to prove them wrong."

The "little school under the El tracks" is looking to push back after getting pushed around the past few years and restore some of the glory that legendary coach Ray Meyer and stars like George Mikan and Mark Aguirre brought to the program.

DePaul can boast 22 NCAA appearances, two Final Fours, an NIT championship. But lately, no one's bragging about the Blue Demons.

They're coming off their third straight losing season, going 8-23 overall and 1-17 in Big East play after failing to win a regular-season conference game the previous year. They fired coach Jerry Wainwright in January following several blowout losses and replaced him on an interim basis with Tracy Webster.

Ultimately, they turned to Purnell, a coach with a history of rebuilding programs. And this one is no small task.

The Blue Demons' most recent NCAA appearance was under Dave Leitao in 2004, and they've made the NIT just twice since then.

They haven't tapped into the Chicago area's deep pool off recruits, watching high-profile players like Derrick Rose and Jon Scheyer go elsewhere, and several of the top local high school coaches made it clear they weren't happy when DePaul hired Purnell. They saw him as an outsider, a stranger, and they wanted Webster.

"I don't think you can let a few naysayers stop you from doing anything," Purnell said. "My approach has always been you go out and you meet people, you develop relationships and let people judge for themselves. We've had some success in getting some guys committed from the Chicago area, and I think it's mainly because we've gone out and worked hard at it. By and large, I've found that most coaches -- the majority, vast majority -- have been receptive and welcoming."

Purnell can sell recruits on an up-tempo style, but he can't sell them on an on-campus arena. Athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said it's "not a front-burner project" and the Blue Demons are entering their 31st year at Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont with a contract that expires in 2016.

"DePaul would never say we wouldn't look at an arena, because you would have to look at us as an institution," Ponsetto said. "As we've grown, we dream big."

A new arena in a lively, densely populated neighborhood would figure to draw big crowds, but Ponsetto remains adamant: "Where we play has not been a hindrance to our success. What's been a hindrance to our success is we need to elevate our recruiting to a whole other level and elevate our style of play."

New arena or not, that's where Purnell comes in.

He spent seven seasons at Clemson, going 138-88 and is 394-279 in 22 years with stops at Radford, Old Dominion and Dayton. The Tigers made the NCAA tournament the past three years, but lost in the first round, making him 0-6 overall in the tournament.

Now, he's part of a line of coaches that left Clemson when it appeared to be on the rise, along with Rick Barnes and Cliff Ellis.

At DePaul, Purnell's trying to reverse a trend, to change a mindset, and squash the snickering.

"It is a big motivation to everybody on the team because we're getting tired of hearing that," swingman Mike Stovall said.

The Blue Demons open the regular season Nov. 14 at home against Chicago State.