La Salle coach Ashley Howard knows the importance of a game against Villanova, but isn’t letting it get to his head
Howard is looking to have La Salle build its basketball identity as the team faces Villanova, where he was once an assistant coach on championship teams.
If one were to do a trust fall, they would be hard-pressed to find a better person to stand behind them than Ashley Howard.
For one, he’s a big believer in trust. It’s what he’s hoping the La Salle men’s basketball team will gain from its faceoff against No. 7-ranked Villanova at The Palestra on Sunday, no matter what the result may be.
“I would hope that the one thing we get from that experience is having the trust of knowing that, by doing things a certain way, that you can put yourself in a position to win a significant game like the Villanova game,” Howard said. “Then you can transfer that trust that you build in that game to help you moving forward. I think that’s the biggest thing you can take from winning the game.”
However, he might let you hit the ground if he feels like you need the wake-up call.
“If you get too intoxicated off of the moment [of winning an important game], then you’re not prepared for the next game and how it can help you be successful moving forward.”
La Salle’s not as big of a school as Villanova, and it doesn’t even have an Atlantic 10 title, let alone three national championships — two of which came while Howard was a Villanova assistant coach. La Salle players might be hot shots around campus, but they don’t boast the national celebrity of the Villanova players. To anyone outside of these programs, it’s a retelling of David and Goliath — but Howard refuses to listen to any external noise.
“You can never worry about the outside,” he said. “You have to worry about the team and the guys that are in the locker room. And I think we have more to prove to each other than to anybody on the outside, because people on the outside don’t really understand the commitment and what it actually is to be a college athlete that competes at this level.
“There’s a lot of commitment, there’s a lot of sacrifice, there’s a lot of things that go into being a successful team. I think the best teams, they have that trust within each other where it’s established that we go out here, we play for each other, and we do things a certain way. I think that our team is right on the brink of establishing that ... because it’s really all about us and us continuing to get better and build our habits that are important to us as a team.”
That being said, could anyone blame him if he was just a bit apprehensive? Howard has a reputation for being jovial, personable, and a generally easygoing guy. He talks to everyone like they’re an old friend, and even the toughest of losses doesn’t put a quaver in his voice. But this is Villanova, at The Palestra, for a national audience to see. Shouldn’t he be shaking in his boots just a little bit?
“No,” Howard answered plainly. “I think that our guys are going to play well. Obviously, when you’re going into a game and you’re playing against one of the best teams in the country, you go into that game knowing it’s a big game, but with that appropriate fear of your opponent because you know that they’re a really good team and that you can’t make a lot of mistakes. But then you’re not giving yourself a shot to win the game. I think our guys are gonna be fired up to play the game, it’s a Big 5 game against a city rival...those are the games that all kids sort of dream about playing.”
Although he sounds impossibly nonchalant, that isn’t to be confused with a blissful awareness of how much this game means for the Explorers. Ever since he traded in the Main Line for North Philly in 2018, Howard has had his sights set on building a La Salle team that can compete with the big names around town.
As the saying goes, “In order to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.” The mentality that Howard has implemented into his players to transform La Salle into its best self is one of treating every game like it’s Villanova at The Palestra, because every game and every win matters, no matter who the opponent is. Playing the Wildcats in the “Cathedral of College Basketball” certainly ups the ante, but it’s an invaluable learning experience for his players.
“We want to treat every game with the same significance,” he said. “Obviously, when you get a chance to play Villanova at The Palestra with the history and tradition and rivalry in place that’s been in existence for over 50 years, it means a little bit more. But, you know, for us, as a team, we have to use this game to just keep getting better. The status of Villanova is the incentive, but what we’ve got to figure out is how do we play with the same incentive as La Salle every night, whether we’re playing Villanova or whoever, doesn’t matter. We’re coming with that same level of focus and excitement and commitment to winning.”
It’s evident that Howard is dedicated to building La Salle (2-2) an identity of its own. One day, he’d like other schools to put the same weight on playing the Explorers as so many people put on playing the Wildcats. It’s not something that happens overnight, and there’s only so much one coach can do to propel a program into the stratosphere, but Howard is confident that La Salle’s big break is imminent.
“One of the things I realize is that it takes time to build and establish a culture and a program like Villanova has,” he acknowledged. “I think that we’re trending in that direction; I think we have the right players, I love our coaching staff. The university has been extremely supportive of men’s basketball, so I think that we’re heading in the right direction in terms of just being the best La Salle that we can be, and hopefully we can use this game as momentum to just keep getting better this season.”
Being the best team they can be doesn’t automatically mean getting cocky. Even if La Salle wins Sunday’s game by 50 points, Howard wants his players’ heads to stay on straight and their feet to stay on the ground.
“It’s a battle, man. We talk about the constant battle of fighting human nature throughout the course of the year, and you’re never as good as you think you are when you’re playing well,” said Howard.
“We say, ‘Be here now.’ Enjoy the moment, take advantage of this moment. In this moment here, we have a great opponent ahead of us, an opponent that doesn’t beat themselves, so we can’t beat ourselves. We have an opponent that competes and plays hard on every possession, so we have to be prepared to go in and do that, and then you focus on what it’s going to take to prepare for Villanova, then once that game is over, then it’s on to the next game and preparing for the next opponent and just staying focused on where are you are in that specific time.”
In Howard’s world, there’s no reason to agonize over the outcome of a game that hasn’t happened yet, and one that he trusts his players to handle once tip-off occurs. To him, it’s not Villanova at The Palestra being broadcasted on ESPN. It’s simply “our biggest game of the year because it’s our next game.”