Lee Kunkel (@Kunkel5)
Last season the La Salle Explorers reached new heights under head coach John Giannini. They reached the Sweet 16, won at mid-major power VCU, beat Butler at home, took out Penn State, Villanova, and for the first time in a long time, were regarded by many as the best team in the city of Philadelphia.
Now the real question–can the Explorers remain a force and become a regular at the top of the A-10 standings, and more importantly, a fixture in the NCAA tournament?
“The goal is always to make the NCAA tournament because you can’t make the Round of 32, 16, Elite 8 or Final Four unless you’re there. So first you have to get invited, that’s the number-one goal by far,” Giannini told CoBL.
The first thing La Salle has done to get the program to its current point is a simple mid-major success recipe: load up on quality guards that want to become a part of something special.
Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills, D.J. Peterson, Tyrone Garland and many before them–including lasts years leading scorer, Ramon Galloway–are all high level guards or big-time contributors. When you look at almost any sustainable mid-major program, guards usually lead the way.
Another key component is a fairly obvious factor, but never an easy one to accomplish. Own the recruiting trail. Not only do you need to bring in talented players but a program needs the right type of players. System, style, location.
Remember Aaric Murry. Nationally known recruit. Complete disaster for both parties. Enter Jerrell Wright. A great fit, a local kid who wants to win at La Salle. Wright isn’t just happy with the programs on the court accomplishments, he’s happy with how the school has embraced the men’s basketball program.
“Just how friendly everybody is, everybody comes up and speaks to us. Professors, students, just everybody comes up, everybody’s so alive on campus now. We just expect for it to get even more fun this year,” Wright said.
These are the players Giannini is recruiting now. This is why La Salle is transforming into a “basketball school.”
“I think we’ve become a basketball school, I think we’re a dominant basketball school, when everybody talks about La Salle they talk about the basketball program, so we just hope we keep on pushing that forward and have the whole country knowing our name,” Wright said.
La Salle has also had some great transfers that have helped build the program up. It’s tough to make a living off transfers because you usually only them for one to two years, but La Salle has made those years count.
Just look at last year’s success. Galloway was the biggest playmaker on the squad. He came from South Carolina. Garland was huge for La Salle when he became eligible in December. He came from Virginia Tech. A year before that the team was led by Earl Pettis who transferred from Rutgers. These are only the latest guys to finish off their careers at La Salle.
This season, Khalid Lewis comes from Delaware and will look to continue the trend. Waiting in the wings are transfers Jordan Price (Auburn) and Cleon Roberts (Georgia Southern), who both become eligible next year.
The success of these transfers at La Salle could be the key to the program gaining steam on the recruiting trail in the next few years. More and more players from the city of Philadelphia will now look to follow in the footsteps of Galloway, Garland, etc., but spend all four of their college years in North Philly.
Getting these four years out of a high level player that may have not come to La Salle a few years ago could be huge. Guys like that are what sustain a program–see Tyreek Duren, Jerrell Wright, Steve Zack—and Giannini is already seeing dividends.
“Number one, our Class of 2014 I feel is one of the best around. It’s Amar Stukes, Cleon Roberts, Jordan Price and Tony Washington. If all of those kids were signing right now this fall, people would tout that as one of the top 50-or-better recruiting classes in the country,” Giannini told CoBL.
Washington may be a perfect example of this theory. He could have followed in Galloway and Garland’s footsteps and went to a “bigger” program like South Florida or Auburn but he decided to play for the Explorers.
As La Salle moves forward, they will have to find more Tyreek Duren’s and Jerrell Wright’s. Guys who commit all four years to the program, guys who are from Philadelphia and want to win at La Salle. That’s how La Salle can sustain their success.
Going forward, La Salle has a lot going for them. They are deep once again in 2013-2014 led by CoBL’s City 6 player of the year, Tyreek Duren and should once again finish near the top of the A-10.
Getting national exposure will also go a long way. They will participate in the Paradise Islands Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a tournament that features Maryland, Providence and Vanderbilt and is nationally televised.
They will play multiple games on ESPN or ESPN 2, and will have ESPN’s “College Gameday” come to the Palestra for their game against Temple.
At least 12 of La Salle’s 16 conference games will be shown nationally on NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network or the ESPN family of networks, a number that didn’t seem possible a few years ago.
This type of exposure is something Giannini can use in recruiting, and build the profile of the program.
Going forward, there will be a lot of variables that will decide if La Salle basketball is a blip on the college basketball radar, or a factor that is here to stay. There will always be challenges, as they compete in a city where there are five other Division 1 programs and many in the surrounding areas.
Ultimately recruiting, as it always does will decide just how long the Explorers can remain relevant. They have the pieces to compete at a high level this season, but replacing guys like Duren, Mills, Garland etc. will not be an easy challenge.