Skip Dillard couldn't understand it. He wanted to get down and get funky. He wanted to whoop and holler. He wanted to climb on the bus, ride back home to Chicago and, as he put, it, "find a couple of women and party." But elsewhere in the DePaul dressing room, Mark Aguirre was worrying over a sore hand, Clyde Bradshaw was holding an ice bag to his left knee, and the rest of Dillard's teammates were silently taking off their uniforms. Dillard clapped his hands twice and yelled "No. 1!" No one paid any attention. He did it again. Still no response. Finally, exasperated, he declared, "Y'all don't seem like you're too happy to be No. 1."
Well, they were and they weren't. After defeating Marquette 92-85 in Milwaukee last Saturday night to assure themselves of this week's top collegiate basketball ranking, most of the DePaul Blue Demons were either too tired, too relieved or too wary about the future to celebrate their lofty status. "It's good to be No. 1, but we want to stay there," said Bradshaw, Dillard's playmaking backcourt partner. "We can't let ourselves be overcome," said Center Terry Cummings. "Then we might think we're more than just a basketball team."
But if any team in the country has the right to be proud, it is DePaul. The Blue Demons have defeated UCLA, Missouri and Marquette on the road this season, and they haven't lost at home in the last three seasons. Their 12-0 record—the best DePaul start in 16 years—makes them one of only two unbeaten teams in the country (the other is Syracuse). And now they are No. 1 for the first time ever, because last week Duke, the only team ranked ahead of them, lost twice while they themselves were beating Ball State 96-79 and then the Warriors.
The one person who might object to DePaul's high station is Ray Meyer, the 66-year-old coach who last month won the 600th game of his 38-year career. Meyer voted his team fourth in last week's UPI coach's poll, and he said he was considering third for this week. "We're not a super team," he says. "There's at least 15 on par with us. But we're getting better, and we're going to be a helluva team by tournament time."
Begging your pardon, coach, but Mark Aguirre (pronounced Uh-gwire) considers the Blue Demons to be a helluva team right now. "I have no doubt we will win the national championship this year," says the team's marvelous forward, "but being No. 1 at any stage of the season is a big accomplishment. There's something special about that number."
And "24" is a special number, as well, because it happens to be the one on Aguirre's uniform. Marquette tried to stop him last Saturday with a man-to-man defense, but that is foolhardy unless the lone defender happens to be The Incredible Hulk. Against the Warriors, 6'7", 235-pound Aguirre twisted, turned and spun for a season-high 36 points to increase his average to 25.8 per game. Let it be known that Aguirre has succeeded Michigan State's Magic Johnson as college basketball's most entertaining player.
Aguirre received some unexpected support against Marquette from Dillard, who scored a season-high 23 points. Between them the two former high school teammates made 21 of 25 free throws. Meanwhile, the crafty Bradshaw dealt out 10 assists, raising his season's total to 83, and Cummings maintained his team rebounding lead with eight.
DePaul's success is a tribute to the quality of players in the Chicago public high school leagues. Of the six Blue Demons who see considerable action, only two, senior Forward Jim Mitchem from Albuquerque and junior Bradshaw of East Orange, N.J., didn't grow up riding the "el." Aguirre and Dillard are sophomores who played at Westinghouse High, and Cummings and Teddy Grubbs are freshmen who starred at Carver and Martin Luther King, respectively.
Of course, Chicago has been producing outstanding players for years, but until recently DePaul wasn't getting many of them. Meyer used to depend on friends and alumni to recommend players because he didn't have the inclination or the resources to go find them himself. This began to change, however, in 1971, when one of his better Chicago-bred players agreed to become a part-time—and later Meyer's first full-time—assistant coach. That player was his son Joe.
Ray gave "Joey" a budget of $3,000 and said "Go get 'em, boy." But Joey didn't have the slightest idea of how to do it.
"The first few years I was in a daze," he says. "I didn't know what it was all about. Plus, we didn't have much to sell because we hadn't been winning. So when I went in to talk to a top local player like Bo Ellis, it was a joke. I was out of my league."
Ellis went on to Marquette and helped win the national championship in 1977. But by 1977-78 DePaul had put together enough talent of its own to go 27-3. The star of that team was Dave Corzine, a big center from Chicago who had been considered a disciplinary risk by many colleges. "A lot of people said we were taking a chance with Dave," Joe Meyer says, "but with him we began to turn the corner. The player who finally changed everything was Aguirre."
Joe Meyer recruited Aguirre—and Dillard—almost by accident. During their junior year at Westinghouse, Meyer was in hot pursuit of their senior teammate Eddie Johnson. Aguirre was hoping to go to Marquette in two years, but when Al McGuire announced his resignation, effective at the end of that season, Aguirre began to listen to what Meyer was telling Johnson about DePaul. "I liked his approach," Aguirre recalls. "He said DePaul was building a program, and he didn't try to win you with the limelight. Eddie went to Illinois because he wanted to go away to school, but I decided I wanted to stay in Chicago and go to DePaul."
Because Aguirre and Dillard had already pretty much decided to attend the same school, Joe Meyer found himself with not one player but two. After so many recruiting disappointments, however, he refused to take anything for granted, so he made a point of watching every one of their high school games. "I kept telling him I was coming and that he should go get us somebody to play with," says Aguirre, "but I don't guess he believed me."
In fact, Meyer felt it was too good to be true. "Getting Mark meant a lot to me personally, because I had taken so much abuse," says Joe. "The only problem was that it was too early to tell anybody we had him. People would tell me I didn't have a chance at him, and I just bit my tongue."
Aguirre's greatest importance, says Meyer, was that he "opened the door to the public league." By enrolling, he proved that Chicago's best talent not only could be attracted to DePaul, but that they also could make the basketball team nationally prominent. Last year, while Dillard improved his grades at Casper (Wyo.) Junior College, Aguirre averaged 24 points a game and led the Blue Demons to third place in the NCAA tournament. None of this was lost on another pair of Chicago high school stars, Grubbs and Cummings. Nor were their performances lost on the DePaul coaches.
A few years ago Joe Meyer might not have wasted his time going after players of their ability. Grubbs had starred since his sophomore year, becoming a high school All-America as a senior. Cummings had been a late developer, but private preschool workouts with his high school coach had turned him into a top prospect, too. They were both big and strong and talented, just the type DePaul never used to get. But this time the Blue Demons did get them, and they have already played leading roles in the team's success.
Ray Meyer realizes that local recruiting success has brought DePaul into a new era of competitiveness. "Everything has changed," he says. "Until recently, I don't think we were ever able to take a kid away from Notre Dame or a Big Ten school. We were in the Dark Ages. Now we're able to recruit for a particular position and even go after the best players outside of Chicago. It's an amazing thing what Joey has done with our resources."
The younger Meyer has developed a recruiting strategy that seems to work just fine. "I sell DePaul, and Coach sells himself," says Joe. Ray says, "I just sit there and smile and try to recruit the mother."
Of course, DePaul is not getting all the local talent. The school finished second to Indiana last year in the wooing of freshman star Isiah Thomas. "I saw Thomas play 12 times, and that's 12 more times than I had watched anybody play in some other years," says Ray Meyer. "Every time Joe sees an open date on my calendar, he sends me off someplace."
But the effort is paying off. Glenn Rivers, from suburban Chicago, one of the best guards in the country, is said to be leaning toward DePaul, and the day before the Marquette game, another guard, Dickie Beal of Covington, Ky., called to say he would be coming in September.
As DePaul is finding out, when a team is on top, good things just naturally happen. Not just in your hometown, but all over the country.