Andrew Albert (@andrewjalbert01)
As the page turns on the fall semester of 2012 for students across the country, most students are ready to pack it in and relax for a month. It is the opposite situation for basketball teams around the country. Teams are pushing through their non-conference schedule, tuning up for conference play. This is exactly the case for La Salle when they take on Bucknell on Saturday night.
While the rest of the school begins to enjoy their month without classes, the Explorers will face a tough road test at Bucknell. The 8-1 Bisons are coming off a 76-60 victory over Kent State on December 4 at Sojka Pavilion. The Explorers are coming off a thrilling 66-64 victory over Northeastern in Boston on Dec. 8.
Both teams are coming off long layoffs due to finals weeks at their respective universities, so common knowledge says that rust could play a factor in the game, especially early on. La Salle’s head coach has a different approach to the long layoff.
“Bucknell’s layoff is even longer than ours,” Dr. John Giannini said. “This is finals week all over the country, so everyone has to deal with it. Interestingly, we have had a number of long breaks this year.”
“Part of the reason was that we tried to schedule more games in December because we knew we would have Tyrone Garland,” Giannini added. “Not that Tyrone is some kind of savior for us, but we really think that he can make us better and deeper. So we have had a number of breaks this year, and we are actually in kind of a rhythm with it.”
Garland is finally eligible to play for the Explorers after having to sit out the first semester after transferring from Virginia Tech midway through last season. The Philadelphia native came back to his hometown after two years in Blacksburg. He scored over 2,000 points at Bartram High School, and he ranks in the top three all-time in Philadelphia public basketball scoring history.
“There’s a chance that he could play great against Bucknell, but I would expect his impact to be more gradual,” Giannini said. “Everyone else is in midseason form. Everyone else has been playing. In his case, it is his first game and he hasn’t played in over a year. I just never put unrealistic expectations on anyone.
“What he will do is he will make us deeper and quicker,” Giannini added. “And I think both those things are important. Team quickness is our strength, and he makes our strength even better. We have a lot of guys playing a lot of minutes and I think sometimes our defensive intensity slips a little bit because of it, so I think we will be able to maintain our intensity better too.”
Bucknell has everyone back from their NIT team from last season. A key for the Bisons is Mike Muscala, the 6-foot-11 senior. Muscala is averaging 18.8 points per game, on top of being one of the best defensive rebounders in the country. According to KenPom.com, Muscala has a defensive rebounding percentage of 29.2 percent, which ranks him sixth in the country. He averages 11.4 rebounds per contest.
“They are 26th in the RPI,” Giannini said of Bucknell. “They have an NBA draft choice at center. They have their top five scorers back from a 25-win team last year that beat Arizona in the NIT. I think there is no question that on paper they are the best team we have played non-conference. They are really impressive.”
One of the Bisons’ keys to success is their defense. They have only given up more than 65 points once this season, which came in an 88-71 victory over MAAC opponent Niagara. They have held two teams (New Mexico State and Dartmouth) under 50 total points in a game.
“You could look at their stats and see they have a great big man, and they have good shooters and experience and a great record,” Giannini remarked. “But the thing that is hidden is how great their defense is. They only give up 57 points a game. Their defensive field goal percentage is in the 30s. Those are phenomenal numbers. As hard as it is to stop a veteran, talented team with a great big man, it might be even harder to score against these guys. I think those are our challenges.”
La Salle will turn to leading scorer and late-game hero Tyreek Duren for his added scoring. He is leading the team with 17.6 points per game, which exceeds his total from last season by more than four points per game. He has hit two game-winning shots for the Explorers thus-far.
For the Explorers to get past the stingy Bucknell defense, Duren will have to establish that he is a scoring threat early, and then distribute the way he normally does. The Explorers will have to shoot well from beyond the arc, as the Bisons are allowing teams to shoot around 34 percent from three.