Energetic. Vocal. Hungry. Gritty.

That’s how the La Salle men’s basketball team’s two seniors, guards Isiah Deas and Saul Phiri, describe this year’s squad.

“We’re going to fight and scrap for everything,” Deas said. “We’re gonna be fun to watch.”

The group looks to improve from last year’s 10-21 season, (8-10 Atlantic 10) which started with the Explorers losing their first ten games, showed promise in the middle, and ended with them falling to Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

Second-year coach Ashley Howardthe product of a Philadelphia basketball family who built a reputation as a recruiter during his tenure as Jay Wright’s top assistant at Villanova — said La Salle fans should expect to see a well-balanced team with multiple playmakers and without an obvious star.

“Honestly, I think they should expect a deep, versatile team that’s going to play a few young guys,” Howard said. “We’re pretty evenly talented across the board.”

La Salle coach Ashley Howard says he's excited to be coaching more of his own recruits this season.
Lou Rabito / Staff file photo
La Salle coach Ashley Howard says he's excited to be coaching more of his own recruits this season.

Howard added that he’s excited to now be coaching his own recruits, including transfers Scott Spencer, a 6-foot-6 guard from Clemson, and Moustapha Diagne, a 6-foot-9 forward from Western Kentucky.

Heading into Saturday’s season opener against Iona, Phiri said he’s hopeful the hard work will pay off for a team with more depth and size than they had a year ago.

“For our fans, they should expect us to play as hard as possible,” he said. “We’re all just excited.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Explorers’ prospects.

Top scorer

Howard predicts the scoring will be spread out, with multiple players averaging in the double digits. Statistically, however, Deas and Phiri should lead the way.

Last year, Deas started 22 games and averaged 11.9 points per game, the second best on the team.

Phiri sat out the first semester but then started 20 of the last 21 games, during which he averaged 11.3 points per game and sank nearly 40 percent of shots from behind the arc.

Both of them said they’ve since upped their game, with Phiri becoming an even better three-pointer shooter.

If that shows on the court, money’s on Phiri to be the top scorer.

La Salle guard Saul Phiri said he's excited about this season, and that fans should be too.
KRISTON JAE BETHEL / For the Inquirer
La Salle guard Saul Phiri said he's excited about this season, and that fans should be too.

Top defender

The team is bigger than it was last season, and players said they’ve focused on physicality, so this category could also be a toss-up.

Spencer could develop into the team’s best defender, Howard said. The transfer, who has yet to play for La Salle, suffered a back injury at Clemson and never got to show his potential there.

Also in the running: Phiri; former Imhotep star David Beatty; and Jared Kimbrough.

MVP

Either senior, Phiri or Deas, could take this one, or they could share the honor. Both buoyed the team in key games last season. For the sake of not coping out, let’s say Phiri.

Most improved

Kimbrough, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, started in 17 games as a freshman and had strong performances, including a 14-point outing against Fordham and back-to-back 10-point games against Miami (Fla.) and Northwestern. In two games, he grabbed nine rebounds.

Howard said he thinks Kimbrough could be a difference-maker on defense. Look for Kimbrough to make a big jump with a year of college hoops under his belt.

Top newcomer

In the short term, that’ll be Sherif Kenney, who’s expected to start at point guard as a freshman.

La Salle freshman guard Christian Ray at Tom Gola Arena on October 23, 2019.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
La Salle freshman guard Christian Ray at Tom Gola Arena on October 23, 2019.

In the long run, Howard said guard Christian Ray, the top recruit out of The Haverford School, will develop into a leader. As a high school senior, he led his team to an unbeaten season, and averaged 23.3 points and 11.1 rebounds.

Schedule analysis

It ain’t easy.

“We aren’t starting our season with any lightweights,” Howard said, “and I don’t think we have any lightweights on our schedule to be honest.”

Three of LaSalle’s first four opponents (Iona, Temple, Murray State, and Villanova) were NCAA tournament teams last year. Once they get through that stretch, the Explorers have a little more breathing room, and five straight home games in December and early January, but there are few easy wins on their schedule.

“I think every game is going to be tough for us,” Deas said.