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DePaul's Dave Leitao, part of the building of UConn men's program, grasps what Huskies bring to the new Big East

Dom Amore, The Hartford Courant on

Published in Basketball

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Some of UConn's upcoming Big East rivals will be old, some new. And then there is DePaul, coached by one of the family.

"There's some nostalgia to it," said Dave Leitao, going into the sixth season of his second stint as DePaul's head coach. "But there's a right-now moment that you've got to be prepared for, because not only will they be able to bring good teams, but great fans and a great venue to play in. As a competitor, you understand what that means for you and the business at hand, because you've added an integral and highly competitive piece to an already great league."

Leitao, 60, played for Jim Calhoun at Northeastern, then coached for him, and followed him to UConn as an assistant in 1986. During two long stretches on Calhoun's staff, he was part of the Dream Season and the first NCAA championship team. In between and afterward, he has been a head coach at Northeastern, DePaul, Virginia and, after coaching in the NBA's developmental league, took over at DePaul again in 2015.

"We're in Chicago, so there's an expertise that Chicago sports fans expect," Leitao said. "There is an understanding of the history of DePaul and following that mold and mantra in how we handle our business. I come from Jim Calhoun's camp, so I'm always going to be about defense first, and playing hard and toughness, but the way the game is played today you have to be equally, if not more skilled, in order to put the ball in the basket and be able to make plays. The combination of both is what we seek and have it be representative of this city and this university."

DePaul spent its early history as an independent, most of it under Hall of Famer Ray Meyer from 1942-84. In 1991, the Blue Demons joined the league that eventually became Conference USA, and in 2005 shifted to the original Big East after the first of the league's football-driven defections. DePaul joined the conference's other basketball-centric schools to form the new Big East in 2013. Across 15 years, the program has won only 22.1% of its regular-season games in either version of the conference, its only winning record, 9-7, in 2006-07.

UConn won nine of 10 games against DePaul before the split up.

 

"A far as the play in the league, it still is at a high level," Leitao said. "The physicality is maybe not as much, and I don't know if that's so much the Big East or if it has to do with the change in rules. There's a little more freedom of movement. But if you were to describe for someone, what does a Big East team look like? Or a Big East player? There are a lot of similarities from times gone by to the times we are in right now. If you look at this past season and Myles Powell for instance, or Markus Howard, they're representative of the same kind of talent that the Big East has come to know and love all the way back to Pearl Washington or Ray Allen, or Allen Iverson or Kerry Kittles. So there is a distinct personality that hasn't changed, but the style of play has adjusted to the times."

Leitao began last season serving a three-game suspension over a recruiting infraction. The Blue Devils went 12-1 out of conference, with notable wins at Iowa, Boston College and Minnesota, at home against Northwestern and Texas Tech. They were 3-15 in the Big East before upsetting Xavier in the first round at Madison Square Garden, after which the conference tournament was stopped due to the coronavirus, a 16-16 finish.

"We've been able to carry over the last couple of years the one thing we haven't had since entering the Big East, and that's culture and continuity," said Leitao, 208-227 as a college head coach. "Last year, we had some tremendous highs, and some tremendous lows as well, but there was a tremendous amount of learning that has defined our culture. ... The mindset that comes with winning is something we had to learn and grow with."

Charlie Moore, who led the team with 15.5 points per game, is among 10 returning players, along with starters Jaylen Butz and Romeo Weems. Newcomers include tranfers Javon Freeman-Liberty, Courvoisier McCauley, Brian Patrick and Ray Salnave.

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