De Paul's Blue Demons aren't looking for too many explanations and probably couldn't come up with many if they tried.

Three straight years, as one of the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament, De Paul embarrassed itself by losing in the first round. And now -- with some saying the Blue Demons shouldn't have been awarded an at-large bid in the first place -- De Paul is alive and kicking with two upsets and a Friday date with top-ranked, top-seeded Duke in the East regional.

The only predictable thing about De Paul is its unpredictability. "It's still a mystery to me," senior guard Tony Jackson said Monday.

The Blue Demons struggled through an uncommonly miserable 16-12 regular season, which included a 13-point loss to Creighton. The home fans booed Jackson -- who suffered through several poor shooting performances -- and Coach Joey Meyer, whose father Ray rarely, if ever, had to deal with such indiscretions.

"If somebody had told me a few weeks ago we'd be in the round of 16 playing Duke I would have said, 'You're crazy,' " senior forward Kevin Holmes said Monday.

So, once again basketball is fun for Meyer, in his second year as head coach after his father's retirement. In a candid 30-minute discussion, the younger Meyer said he can appreciate fully the team's success now because he was so low several weeks ago.

"I don't know if this is vindication or not; it's just fun to win," he said. "After going through what we went through this season, there's definitely a better appreciation for success.

"I was down, all right. You've heard that cliche about being lower than a snake's belly -- well, I was really low. For a while there, it was no fun to play. It wasn't even fun to practice. It was drudgery, even for me at times. You just didn't want to be there, it was so ugly."

It's also ironic. When Ray Meyer was getting on in years, the self-proclaimed experts said the old man was just propped up on the bench and that it was Joey who was really doing the coaching. That enraged Joey. Since he took over, the same experts have said, "See what happens as soon as Joey gets out from under Ray."

That hasn't set well with Joey, either.

"Everybody says, 'Be thick-skinned,' and you try," Meyer said. "But I don't care who you are, it has to bother you to a degree, even when you look at the illogic of it. It was almost like, 'We won't say anything bad about De Paul because Ray Meyer is the coach. But now that he's gone, let's go get Joey.' "

Every criticism that could possibly be leveled at De Paul was, whether or not it was true: no outside shooting (true for the most part); no discipline (false); bad chemistry (true for a while); poor defense (sometimes). And Meyer said that "we have some good leaders, but we also have some players who didn't want to be led."

Throw it all together and you get a sinking team. After a 13-6 start, De Paul finished one of the nation's most difficult schedules by losing six of its final nine games.

"When things just looked like they weren't going to come together like I thought they should, the natural reaction is to start feeling sorry for yourself," Holmes said.

Said Meyer: "We're playing the toughest schedule we've ever played and the fans turned on us so fast the kids got scared.

"The thing I had to do was fight thinking about all those things and start thinking about what we had and what I could do to capitalize on it. But there were moments of weakness when I just got down and felt terrible."

Holmes also remembers the feeling. "I think we really hit rock-bottom," he said. "The St. John's victory two games later gave us hope. It was a little uprising. But then we fell again and were scraping the bottom."

De Paul lost to Notre Dame for the second time, then at UCLA in the final three seconds. As it turned out, only a victory over Marquette on the final day of the regular season got the Blue Demons an at-large bid, selection committee chairman Dick Schultz has said.

Getting a bid certainly was no lock. Usually, De Paul has a couple of thousand people crowded around a television waiting for the pairings to be announced. "All we're usually concerned about is where we're seeded, where we're playing, against whom," Jackson said.

This time, nearly 60 of the teams had been announced when "De Paul" flashed across the screen in the East region.

"We went wild," Jackson said. "I had never been on a De Paul team that was happy to just get into the tournament. We were walking out of the room when somebody said, 'Hold it, who are we playing?' "

Meyer says now that the victory over then sixth-ranked St. John's gave the Blue Demons confidence, but the bid gave them "a common purpose."

Or as Holmes put it, "The bid stirred up something totally new in all of us, in the coaches, too. Just seeing our name on the board, just the sight of it."

It certainly did wonders for Meyer. "I knew we had a chance because we played one of the toughest schedules," he said. "But what's a chance? I was nervous as hell.

"There was a case for us to get in, a case for us not to get in. A 16-12 team certainly can't go around screaming if it doesn't get in. But I thought we certainly were one of the best 64 teams in the country."

It's a moot point now. De Paul, with a first-round victory over Virginia and a second-round upset of Oklahoma, is one of the sweet 16 despite being seeded 12th in the East.

"Coach Joey looks alive again," Jackson said.

Much the same could be said of Jackson. "I was in a daze on the court when they first booed me," he said. "But my grandmother called me one day and said, 'God never gives us more than we can handle.' And she was right."

Jackson could hardly walk across campus Monday because the well-wishers kept stopping him. Nobody's booing De Paul anymore.

"Everybody's throwing accolades at us now," Meyer said. "We're not doing things differently than we did the first 28 games; things have just come together. Looking at it from the inside, I would say it was just having the chance. It pulled everybody together. . . . That's why I'm so proud of these kids and happy for them right now. We were lucky to get the opportunity, but we've made the most of it."