La Salle hosts Penn in 2013’s first Big 5 matchup

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Whether or not Fran Dougherty (right) plays for Penn on Saturday is still unknown. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Whether or not Fran Dougherty (right) plays for Penn on Saturday is still unknown. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

It’s the first Big 5 matchup of 2013 when Penn takes the short trip over Market and up Broad to take on La Salle (Tom Gola Arena, 2 p.m.)

La Salle (9-3, 1-0 Big 5) has had a so-so non-conference slate so far, beating Villanova, Iona and a healthy Delaware, though none of those names will blow anybody away; they also have losses to Bucknell and Central Connecticut (at home, no less). They’re coming off a 17-point defeat at Miami (Fl.) on Wednesday that had their coach upset with their effort on one side of the court.

“Our second half was probably the worst defense we’ve played in two years, and that’s without exaggeration,” La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini told CoBL by phone on Friday. “We practiced great before Miami…hopefully we get back on track here.”

Penn (2-10, 0-1 Big 5) has certainly had the roughest start to the season of any of the area teams, but a young squad that graduated a ton of talent was expected to struggle. There are certainly some positive signs, including the play of freshmen guards Jamal Lewis (5.5 ppg, 2.7 apg) and Tony Hicks (5.5 ppg, 2.0 apg), and as a whole the team’s tempo-free defensive numbers are better than last year’s experience-laden team.

Jerome Allen is never one to admit to any sort of moral victories, but the Quakers have kept the last two games close despite lacking their best overall player in Fran Dougherty, who’s out with mono. Penn was within 10 points of Butler for the vast majority of a 70-57 road loss to Butler on Wednesday, four days after taking Wagner to overtime in another road loss, 68-63.

“They’re due,” Giannini said. “Wagner has four out of five starters back from a team that won like 24 games. Butler speaks for itself.

“They’re playing people close, I know they’re frustrated with not winning but when you’re playing a high-level teams on the road and they’re right there, it’s just a matter of time before you start winning. We’ve always respected Penn and you really have to respect the way they’ve been playing lately. They’re very close to breaking through.”

Dougherty, a 6-8 junior, was averaging 15.7 ppg and 8.8 rpg through the team’s first 10 games; his status for Saturday is unknown. If he does play, in any capacity, he would provide the biggest matchup problem for the Explorers.

“Fran is just a much better player. Just the way we’ve had some guys improve a lot, he’s improved a lot, and he’s a very good player. It’s as simple as that. He can step out, he can shoot 3s, he’s crafty and big inside, so he’s a challenge for whoever guards him.”

The Quakers will still have the services of dangerous 6-3 junior guard Miles Cartwright (14.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg), who’s broken the 20-point barrier three times already this season. Redshirt freshman forward Greg Louis (4.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg) had an impressive 19 points and 11 rebounds in a loss at Delaware on Dec. 21 but has just six points and nine rebounds in the last two games combined; those were his first three career starts.

Either way, though, Giannini said that his team “doesn’t focus that much on personnel.” That makes sense, especially with only three days to prepare for a Quaker rotation that could number 11 players even if Dougherty doesn’t take the court.

“We think every player that a coach puts on the floor is just as dangerous and someone we respect,” he said. “We think that if a coach making good money puts you into a Division I basketball game, with his season and livelihood on the line, that you’re a good player.”

The Explorers certainly have plenty of good players, especially now that Tyrone Garland is eligible. The junior and Virginia Tech transfer is averaging 14.6 ppg through his first five games, shooting 47.5 percent from the floor despite just 18.8 percent (3-of-16) from three.

He joins a lethal backcourt that already featured Ramon Galloway, the Atlantic 10’s leading scorer at 17.8 ppg, as well as Tyreek Duren, ninth in the league (15.2 pg). Galloway’s been on fire lately, shooting 63.3 percent (19-of-30) from three in the teams’ last five games; he’s upped his scoring, rebounding and assist output over last season despite a slight decrease in playing time.

This is the final game of the non-conference slate for La Salle, who open Atlantic 10 play at Charlotte on Jan. 9. Penn has two games left before they face Princeton on Jan. 12, but then go three weeks before a visit from Columbia kicks off the majority of the Ivy League schedule; the Quakers play Big 5 rivals Temple and Saint Joseph’s, as well as NJIT, in those three weeks.

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