10. La Salle Explorers
Last Season: Many would have penciled La Salle in as THE basement dweller last season for several reasons: Could they field a competent, competitive group with how thin the roster was? There were questions surrounding Fran Dunphy’s skills after taking two years off from coaching to serve as the interim athletic director at Temple. You know the drill here with La Salle, Tom Gola Arena, and consistent disappointment.
At the age of 74, Dunphy reminded us why he is one of the great wizards of college basketball. On the outside looking in, 15-19 is subpar, but 2023 was successful in subtle ways. Every game La Salle was competitive: the second half of their season opener they outscored Villanova 45 to 44. They played a very close first half against Wake Forest 35-33, lost by 7 to Georgetown, and continued with a 2-1 start to A10 play then a five-game run in February. They also went on two separate losing skids in the conference — La Salle didn’t have THAT kind of firepower — but they turned it on in the conference tournament.
Dunphy’s charges disposed of a miserable Rhode Island team then took advantage of Duquesne’s late-season meltdown with a resilient second half thanks to their two leaders: Jhamir Brickus and Khalil Brantley combined for 45 total points. The signature Dunphy offense with players running off curl screens, ball reversals, and the clever elbow face-ups to draw fouls was in full effect. When they ran into Fordham’s stingy defense, they blanked La Salle from three in the first half. But in that game, Dunphy reminded Fordham fans of the past: he turned the clock back to his Temple days and La Salle came alive in the second half hitting five key threes led by Brantley’s 18 and seven dimes.
The fun came to an end with an 8 eight-point loss, but a quarterfinal finish is nothing to scoff at all for this group. Dunphy took home his ninth Big 5 Coach of the Year award, Brantley and Josh Nickelberry were all-big 5 selections and Nickelberry won the A10’s sixth man of the year award — the first Explorer to win the award. But once again, questions from last year are bubbling in more ways than one.
Returnees: Khalil Brantley, Jhamir Brickus, Daeshon Shepherd, Anwar Gill, Rokas Jocious, Andres Marrero, Lucas Mercandino, Ryan Zan
Out: Mamadou Doucoure, Hassan Drame (Duquesne), Fousseyni Drame (Duquesne)
In: Tunde Fasai, Efe Tahmaz, Milos Kovacevic
Potential Strengths: One constant with Dunphy’s teams was (and is) the heavy diet of threes. They will launch regardless of who contests — last year shooting the sixth most on the sixth-best percentage (34%) in the conference. Brantley and Brickus alone shot over seven combined threes per game and hit just over two combined per contest. Rokas Jocious took 13 threes and hit five, and while that sample isn’t much, for big guys, it’s promising since centers don’t shoot threes with volume. Andres Marrero was the other true freshman who also showed signs in his limited role shooting 36% from three.
Brantley and Brickus returning are beyond uplifting for many reasons: the first being they both could hit 1,000 career points this year (Brantley sits at 689 while Brickus is at 796). They’re one of the better backcourts the A10 has to offer this coming season. Both can create, score, shoot, and hold it down on defense. Brantley went from eight points per game as a freshman to over 14 last season, a significant jump with the promise of more. Brickus is a steady scoring presence himself posting 9.8 last year, expect an uptick in the points department.
Daeshon Shepherd is the athletic wing who doesn’t have the shooting chops but is the most qualified to benefit from cuts and fastbreak scores. Anwar Gil excels as a set shooter and can offer some creation as well. Both of these guys are the most qualified to take on the best opposing guard/wing on defense. Shepherd is athletic enough for it and Gil has the smarts to play solid wing defense. Freshmen Tunde Fasai is reported to have a well-rounded skill set, while Efe Tahmaz should offer more wing depth.
With Doucoure gone, Jocious is going to have more of a role in rebounding and inside scoring. Earlier I touched on his potential to stretch the floor, but at 6’10” 260, the Latvian import could turn into a double-double threat. His advanced numbers weren’t that bad (albeit in a modest 14.8 minutes per game), but he’s further along than people will perceive. A -0.2 offensive and defensive box score for a freshman center given this conference’s depth at that spot, certainly makes you wonder what his potential could be. Milos Kovacevic is a junior college scoop who will add experience in this area as well.
Potential Weaknesses: Their losses in the transfer portal are a very big concern. Josh Nickelberry jumped ship to Florida State and both Drame brothers went to Duquesne for their graduate season. Nickelberry was the key piece off their bench, let alone the roster, with his absurd 40% from range last year. More volume for Brantley and Brickus isn’t a bad thing, but it does eliminate another offensive threat which will spike more double teams.
The Drame twins offered size at the wings with their all-around game, especially on defense. Coming from the Shaheen Holloway tree it was a given they brought defensive energy every game. They were probably the second and third-best defenders that were on the team but have decided to jump ship. Those are three key players gone that were much-needed depth from last season.
While I raved about Jocious being further along, is he ready to take a beating in the paint every game? The A10 is full of enforcers like DaRon Holmes, Chad Venning, Abdou Tsimbila, Josh Cohen, and Neal Quinn to name a few. Kovacevic’s numbers at JUCO aren’t exciting, and La Salle allowed the second most points per game in the A10. They ended up sixth in the conference in team rebounding (35.8 per game), but they lost a lot of size that contributed to that.
The final concern is free throws. 69% as a team from the free-throw line isn’t going to cut it. Some of Dunphy’s best Quaker and Owl teams were 70% or better from the charity stripe, as this La Salle group finished second to last in the conference in team free throw percentage. They need to draw, take, and make more free throws if they want to get to the next level.
Outlook: Amid their defensive concerns, the three-point-happy Explorers will be a fun little offensive team. This personnel is perfect for Dunphy’s air-raid offense and can have coaches scrambling to defend it. Their team got a little smaller but they have the offensive chops to win games they shouldn’t. A pillow fight finish is too shallow, the 8-10 window is very much in reach. Some darkhorse elements reek from these guys, so don’t be surprised if they sneak into a single-digit finish.