La Salle, yes La Salle, has a chance to be one of the best teams in the Atlantic 10 this season. Hell, the Explorers could even win the league. This would be an incredible turnaround given just how bad this team was in 2015-16. John Giannini’s squad won just 4 games in A-10 play, finishing dead last in the conference race. After a stunning home victory over the Dayton Flyers, La Salle would go on an abysmal 10 game losing streak before finally winning another game late in conference play. This team was horrendous shooting the ball: three point range, inside the arc, free throw line. You name it. According to Kenpom, La Salle had the 2nd worst offensive efficiency in the A-10 in conference play, and it ranked last in the defensive category.
This team was also a one-trick pony. Jordan Price played 95.1% of available minutes; he was the 3rd most utilized player in the nation last season. Outside of Price, the Explorers had few capable scorers and defenders, and their stud junior could only do so much. But hold your horses because we’re going to see a completely new La Salle team in the Atlantic 10 this coming season. Coach Giannini seemingly has the arsenal to bring this team into the spotlight. Could we see an Explorer run to the Sweet 16 once more? If there’s ever a year, it’s right now.
Luckily for the Explorers, this section remains light. La Salle loses freshmen Dusan Majstorovic and Karl Harris as transfers. Understandably, neither of these two would see a lot of minutes this coming season as La Salle brings in plenty of its own transfers. Majstorovic only played in 15 games last season, and with all of the depth La Salle has at the 3, he’ll be a better fit with the Maine Black Bears. Harris showed some potential in conference play last season, but again, there just won’t be enough minutes to go around.
Seniors Rohan Brown and O.J. Lewis will also be moving on from this program. Lewis seldom saw court time last year, but Rohan was somewhat reliable off the bench in non-conference play. Of La Salle’s departing players, Brown was the biggest points contributor, though he scored just 3.9 per game in 2015-16. Bottom line, La Salle loses a mere 12% of its offensive production last season. With new weapons and plenty of returning talent, it becomes easier to see just why La Salle has a shot at a major improvement this year.
If you don’t follow La Salle basketball closely, this is the section where you need to pay attention. The Explorers have acquired an array of talent from the transfer market, and with all of the pieces finally eligible, this team will be both experienced and dangerous.
Rising sophomore Pookie Powell is ready to make an impact at point guard after sitting out a season. Powell is an excellent passer with great court vision. He can go coast-to-coast in a flash, and he’s got quite the ability to finish through contact. A top 100 recruit out of high school, Powell did not have a chance to show what he’s truly capable of, playing just 15.4 minutes per game his freshman year at Memphis. He should join Johnnie Shuler and Amar Stukes to create a stockpile of available talent at the 1.
Syracuse transfer B.J. Johnson averaged 4.3 points and 3.3 rebounds two seasons ago, but again, he’s the type of player that should flourish in a more-developed role. Johnson’s got great athleticism and quickness for his size, and his touch around the paint is smooth. He’ll help alleviate Price who spent a lot of time at the 3 and the 4 last season.
South Carolina transfer Demetrius Henry will be a nice addition to a frontcourt that got obliterated on the boards last season. At 6-9 and 225 pounds, Henry is built and has the ability to be a force on both offense as a scorer and on defense as a shot blocker. Henry averaged 6.0 points and 3.6 boards per game two seasons ago with the Gamecocks. He’ll be a huge piece to the puzzle for the Explorers in terms of frontcourt depth, and given his sheer athletic ability, Henry could emerge as a star in the next two seasons.
La Salle also grabs three incoming freshmen in Saul Phiri, Isiah Deas, and Cian Sullivan. Phiri is a 3 star recruit who, even though there aren’t a lot of minutes to go around in this backcourt, might just get a chance to see a respectable amount of court time in the 2016-17 season. Deas could see some court time at the 3, but I’d expect him to play a more limited role this season. Sullivan comes into La Salle at 7-2 and should see some immediate playing time down low with Tony Washington. The Explorers ranked worse than 300th in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages last season, so Sullivan will try to help turn the tide.
There are quite a few, so I’ll be brief. Jordan Price is the obvious best returning player. He was just named to the A-10’s Preseason All Conference Second Team, and he’s a juggernaut in terms of putting up points. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take a small step back in terms of production this season, as there will be so many more options for the Explorers on offense. Cleon Roberts returns as a double-digit scoring threat and a great defensive presence (1.9 steals per game last season). He should, once again, see plenty of playing time and could very well be La Salle’s second best player for another season.
Tony Washington is a vital player for this team. The center is going to have a lot of weight on his shoulders making sure this frontcourt does its part. Last year was not a good year for La Salle in the paint, but another year under Washington’s belt along with the additions of Henry and Sullivan should move things in the right direction. Johnnie Shuler and Amar Stukes are both returning backcourt threats that averaged more than 3 assists per contest last season. It’ll be interesting to see who gets the nod at starting point guard this season; I’d expect Shuler and Powell to likely see most of the time at the 1, and Stukes should probably play the 2 exclusively. Finally, after averaging 6.1 points in just 13.5 minutes per game last season, Yevgen Sakhniuk is a player who’s got the ability to emerge as a silent threat off the bench this coming season.
La Salle did a fairly good job scheduling its non-conference season. Most years, you’d cast a lot of these games off as losses, but this season, La Salle has a pretty good chance of finishing with a strong record before entering A-10 play. The Explorers will have a tough matchup against an injury-ridden, but still solid, Temple Owls team to start the season. La Salle will get very tough games against Big East powers Villanova and Georgetown and then turnaround to face tough mid-major competition in Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer. There are a handful of winnable games in this schedule, but all-in-all, this La Salle team could walk into conference play with just 2 or 3 losses.
Conference play features only one go-around with teams like Dayton, Davidson, and VCU. Though the Explorers will have to face Rhode Island twice, they’ll also get to face inferior teams in Massachusetts, Saint Louis, and Fordham two times. La Salle needs to beat the bottom half of the league if it wants a shot at finishing near the top. If it wants to be respected as a league leader, it has to play like one. And that means beating, excuse me, crushing, teams like Duquesne, Saint Louis, and George Mason this year.
My ceiling for this La Salle team is a trip to the NCAA Tournament and a very likely exit in the first weekend. That being said, I’m guessing the Explorers will probably end up being an NIT team. But in all honesty, I think any fan would take that over last year’s brutal 9-22 finish. I’d like to think that this team has what it takes to finish as high as third or fourth in the Atlantic 10, but it’s tough to know just how well all of these pieces will fit together. Can these transfers play up to their potential, and will Jordan Price we be the all-conference caliber player that leads this team back to the Big Dance? Only time will tell, but keep your eye on this La Salle team this season. The Explorers are going to be a lot of fun to watch.