For just the second time all season, a nationally ranked program is coming in from out of town to face a City 6 team.

If you figure the host will be Villanova, you guessed wrong. It’s La Salle, which welcomes Dayton to Tom Gola Arena on Thursday night in the Atlantic 10 opener for both teams (8:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network). The Flyers (11-2) are No. 20 in the Associated Press poll and No. 18 by the coaches.

And with the Explorers’ 9-3 record starting to turn some heads, it’s a good time to see just how good Ashley Howard’s young team really is.

There are quite a few promising signs, especially on defense. As of Wednesday La Salle ranked an impressive 16th nationally in three-point defense, 87th in two-point defense and 85th in defensive efficiency. The last of those stats, 95.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, is nearly five points allowed fewer than the national average of 100.0.

Howard’s team has also committed to an up-tempo, harassing style, and that’s shown by a stat tracked by Ken Pomeroy called Average Possession Length. The Explorers’ defense holds opponents to 16.2 seconds per possession, which is the 24th-shortest figure in Division I. Freshman Ayinde Hikim has been a big factor, averaging 4.1 steals per 100 possessions — 44th in the country.

“I think that we have to make that our calling card," Howard said after Saturday’s 71-59 win over Bucknell at the Palestra. “I want to establish a culture of a team that defends, and being able to win games where you don’t score the ball, that only happens if you can defend. And then if, over time, through player development and recruiting, you get a roster where you’ve got guys that can score and defend, then you’ve got a really good team.”

La Salle head coach Ashley Howard talks with his players during the Explorers' win over Bucknell.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
La Salle head coach Ashley Howard talks with his players during the Explorers' win over Bucknell.

The message is getting through to the players.

“Everybody takes pride in playing defense,” sophomore forward Jared Kimbrough said. “Coach Ash preaches [that] we have a chance to be one of the top defensive teams in the nation, so we take pride in that.”

There are some good signs on offense, too. La Salle ranks a respectable 91st in three-point shooting (35.3%), Hikim ranks No. 26 nationally in assist rate (37.1 per 100 possessions), and sophomore big man Ed Croswell is tied at No. 71 nationally in offensive rebounds per game (3.0).

But Howard and his team know it has all come against a lot of bad teams. The best opponent the Explorers have beaten, according to Pomeroy’s rankings, is Wright State (No. 111). Six of the nine wins have come against teams ranked No. 200 or worse, and both games against top-100 teams have been losses (Temple and Villanova).

Dayton is at another level not just from those teams, but much of the nation. The Flyers are ranked No. 9 by Pomeroy (Villanova is No. 19) and has big-time players in sophomore forward Obi Toppin (19.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game) and junior guard Jalen Crutcher (12.9 points, 5.1 assists, 3.1 rebounds).

“We’ve just got to stay focused during practice and [be] ready,” said Kimbrough, who scored a team-high 16 points against Bucknell on his 20th birthday. “But I have a feeling we could really beat them, and that would give us a boost.”

Howard appreciates the optimism, but he’s more pragmatic.

“I’m just looking at it as a great opportunity for us to test ourselves, to see if we can play 40 minutes versus a quality opponent," Howard said. “We’re going to prepare to go out there and try to guard them, try to contain Obi Toppin, who’s one of the best players in college basketball -- an NBA draft prospect -- and I’ll be looking forward to seeing what type of effort we can put together.”