DePaul University has had a long history playing basketball and most of it has been away from the national spotlight. The most notable exception to that came in the late 1970s and early 1980s under the coaching of Ray Meyer, and the high point was the 1979 DePaul basketball edition that got Coach Meyer to the Final Four.
Meyer had devoted his life to DePaul basketball, taking over as head coach in 1943. He consistently won games, but national respect was hard to come by. This wasn’t an age of unlimited NCAA Tournament berths—quite the opposite in fact, and it was tougher if you were an independent.
And if you were an independent fighting for attention with Notre Dame (coached by Digger Phelps), Marquette (led by Al McGuire) and even for a short time Detroit (coached by Dick Vitale), there wasn’t a lot of media air left to breathe by the time those colorful coaches got done.
DePaul started to change that in 1978 when they finished the season ranked third in the country and won an incredible double-overtime game over Louisville in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Even here though, the Blue Demons’ rivals got in the way—DePaul lost to Notre Dame two days later in the game for the Final Four.
The 1979 DePaul basketball team finished the regular season 23-5, but it took them until the latter part of February to even get in the national Top 20. Fortunately, the NCAA Tournament bracket treated them a little better. This was the first year the field was formally seeded and DePaul got the #2 spot in the West.
It was three core players that led the Blue Demon attack. Gary Garland and Curtis Watkins provided floor balance at guard and forward, but the big talent was freshman Mark Aguirre, who would go on to eventually be the first overall pick in the 1981 NBA draft. These three players gave Meyer scoring threats each time out.
The NCAA Tournament was a 48-team affair and the top four seeds in each regional got first-round byes. DePaul took care of USC in the second round and moved on to the regionals in Provo. Once again, a rival in whose shadow the Blue Demons had long labored awaited. Marquette was the opponent, now in its second year post-McGuire.
DePaul took advantage of the opportunity, getting 19 points from both Aguirre and Watkins and using their offensive balance to trump the Warriors, who relied almost exclusively on Bernard Toone. A 62-56 win had Meyer one win from the Final Four.
The John Wooden era might be four years in the rearview mirror, but UCLA was still an elite program and they were the #1 seed in the West. But Garland came up with the game of his life—24 points/8 rebounds/8 assists. Watkins had 24 points and 8 rebounds of his own, while Aguirre added 20.
DePaul was ahead 51-34 at half and staved off a furious UCLA rally behind David Greenwood. The final score was 95-91. Garland was the regional’s Outstanding Player and Meyer was finally going to the Final Four in Salt Lake City.
The 1979 Final Four is most remembered for the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird showdown in the NCAA final. What’s forgotten is that DePaul almost upended that matchup. They drew Bird and Indiana State in the national semifinals. The Big Three again delivered—Aguirre, Garland and Watkins combined for 55 points and the team shot 55 percent. Bird was a little bit too much though, scoring 35 points on a surreal 16-of-19 shooting. The game went to the wire and the Sycamores survived 76-74. Who knows how much differently we might perceive basketball history had DePaul come up with one more bucket.
One more bucket or no, the 1979 DePaul basketball team was Coach Meyer’s great high point. The next three years produced heartbreak—DePaul got #1 seeds and lost in the second round (their first game) each time, and became synonymous with postseason underachievement. In Meyer’s final year of 1984, they again got a #1 seed and made it out of the first weekend, but lost a heartbreaker to Wake Forest in the Sweet 16.
In 1979, none of that mattered. DePaul got its moment on the national stage, one they and their proud head coach had truly earned.