If back-to-back wins over A-10 bell cows Butler and VCU didn’t convince you of La Salle’s staying power, perhaps this will:
Not Complacent, Never Satisfied
Give it up to the men in gold for embracing the big picture despite the temptation to revel in the short-term success so few saw coming. As easy as it would be to rest on their laurels, the Explorers have demonstrated a quenchless thirst to get better by the game. That championship mentality is paying early dividends already. After notching the program’s first win over a Top 10 team since 1980, La Salle bounced back with an as-impressive victory on the road against VCU. Don’t expect another A-10 team to pull off wins over both Butler and VCU—the class of the conference—this season, never mind in successive games.
Backcourt Second to None
La Salle’s backcourt has it all: a top-flight scoring ace, a reliable secondary scorer (a bona fide wing man, so to speak) and a super sixth man forming the skeleton of a fierce three-headed guard attack. Let’s begin with the star himself. Ramon Galloway is third in the A-10 in scoring (17.2 points per game) and second among qualifying players in points per 40 minutes (21.2). While his efficiency has taken a hit relative to last season, his assassin’s mentality surely hasn’t. Neither has his defense. The senior guard ranks fourth in the conference in steals and third among guards in field goal percentage against (32-percent). Together with Tyreek Duren, his partner in crime, Galloway has helped anchor a game-changing defense second only to Shaka Smart’s dynamic full-court press action at VCU. You’d be inclined to call the Explorers a bunch of poor man’s Rams until you saw what La Salle did to the A-10 newbie over the weekend. Somewhere along the way you also should have noticed La Salle’s backcourt depth is unmatched. Explosive scorer and Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland is the league’s top reserve, averaging a staggering 22.3 points per 40 minutes. Regulars Sam Mills (starter) and D.J. Peterson present a bottomless trove of depth at the position, allowing Dr. John Giannini to mix in four-guard looks against opponents light on quickness and guard depth. Know this: the Explorers won’t be losing any games this year because their guards ran out of steam.
Two-Headed Frontcourt Hard to Crack
The not-so-subtle-anymore emergence of Steve Zack has been a season-changer for Giannini’s team. The second-year pivot teams up inside with fellow sophomore Jerrell Wright, forming a dynamic one-two punch of rim protectors and above-average rebounders that opposing teams must match. Zack and Wright are averaging a combined 4.3 blocks per 40 minutes and together have held down the fort on the glass, each contributing better than six rebounds per game. For a team that gets enough scoring out of its guards—and Wright is no slouch offensively himself—the dirty work La Salle’s frontcourt duo provides down low keeps the team on solid footing.
Offense and Defense Each Pulling Its Oar
Even advanced statistician Ken Pomeroy has the Explorers earmarked as legitimate. La Salle is one of just 34 schools nationally to rank in the Top 65 in adjusted offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. The talent has been in place for at least a year, evident, if only in spurts, during last year’s 21-win season which culminated in a short-lived NIT appearance. What’s changed since? Better chemistry on offense married with a renewed commitment to the principles of an effective pressure defense that’s been traceable to the middle of conference play last season.
Room to Grow
Here’s where rival A-10 schools should get antsy: La Salle still has room for improvement. The Explorers are only shooting 34-percent from behind the arc this season, down six-percent from the team which led the conference in 3-point field goal percentage a year ago. Duren and Mills aren’t shooting the ball with nearly the same confidence or efficiency as they did at this time last year. Mills, who ranked eighth in the A-10 last season in 3-point field goal percentage and 3-pointers made, is shooting just 28-percent from downtown in his junior campaign. If either he or Duren rediscovers the outside touch—which isn’t at all far-fetched given that Mills was a 42-percent 3-point shooter during his first two seasons in college—the Explorers will become even more lethal than they already are.
Some comfort for those fans hurting for a return to the NCAA tournament: the Explorers own the third best résumé of any A-10 team. With a top-25 RPI strength of schedule, two wins over Top 25 RPI teams (Butler and VCU) and three more over Top 50 teams (Villanova, Richmond and Iona), La Salle has a portfolio that trumps that of fellow conference bubble teams Saint Louis, UMass and Temple. See for yourself:
Provided they keep it up, the Explorers are on pace to explore March Madness for the first time in 21 long years. Well deserved.