La Salle looks for answers amid slump
[A quick preamble: You all know Andrew from his past work for the Daily News and City of Basketball Love, among other outlets. I'm really happy to announce that we've hired him to the sports team at Philly.com. You'll be reading his stuff on here throughout this season and beyond.
Although this blog has been around for seven years now, you all know that for a while now, I haven't been writing on here all that much. I'm delighted to finally have someone to help bring some new life to this little corner of the world. But before you ask, no, the Schuylkill 16 isn't coming back. At least not for now. - Jonathan]
Heading into Wednesday night's game against Villanova, La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini laughed off a question at Monday's media availability. In essence, how could the Explorers keep things from going from bad to worse?
With his team coming off two straight losses at the Barclays Center, Giannini knew there was no way to answer the question in a positive manner.
"We are certainly not going to start talking about the potential of a losing streak," he said. "That would probably be the dumbest thing a coach could possibly do. No, I won't start to emphasize that - I'm not going to come in and say, 'Hey guys, this could be the start of something bad.' "
But while he refused to say it, he knew it could get ugly.
After winning its first four games against inferior opponents, La Salle got sent back down to reality when it traveled to Brooklyn, then lost again to the top-10 Wildcats, 84-70, at Tom Gola Arena.
Suddenly, the Explorers sit an average 4-3 with no signs of things getting better. Their offense is nowhere to be found. They are shooting 38.7 percent on the year and have not scored more than the 73 points they scored against St. Francis (NY). Their shooting has been getting better as of late, but it is not anywhere near where it should be if they are going to compete in the Atlantic 10.
They scored 41 points against Villanova in the second half, but it didn't matter.
"We have to man up," Giannini said Wednesday night. "The second half was our best offensive half of the year. We scored 41 points against a terrific team. Where did it get us? Nowhere."
Giannini emphasizes defense with his team, but it's not going well right now. After not giving up 60 points in their first three games, they have given up more than 60 in each of their four games, with each total being higher than the last.
"This has to be a defensive team," Giannini said. "That's what we are. Scoring 41 points in a half against Villanova got us absolutely nowhere. This has to be a tough, gritty team. If we are not tough and gritty, we are not going to win."
Now is a pivotal time in La Salle's season, as early as it may be. With Temple and Drexel looming, things could get a lot better or a lot worse.
Win both and they sit at 6-3 with a few decent road wins. Lose both and they're 4-5 with nothing overly notable in the win column. At that point, the prospect of turning things around and having a successful season would be bleak.
6-3, of course, is a much friendlier place to be.
So what makes anyone think La Salle can turn things around and beat quality opponents anytime soon? Despite losing the games, the Explorers have shown tremendous fight in games in which they were simply outmatched.
Against a top-10 Virginia team, they fought back from down 20 to cut the game to four. They lost by eight.
Against Villanova, they could have easily lost by 30-plus given that the Wildcats are playing some of the best basketball in the country - and given that Jay Wright's team shot 56.6 percent from the field.
That fight is something that was not present in last season's 15-16 campaign. When they would get down last season, that was it. This year, despite not winning the games, they are showing resolve to stay in games and keep margins respectable.
"They're tough, man," Jay Wright said Wednesday night. "You know those guys aren't going to quit. You know how good they are. They are going to make adjustments at halftime. I thought John did a great job at halftime going to a zone. It was a four point game. The second half was a four point game."
Jerrell Wright has been in foul trouble in the first half of the last three games. Steve Zack cannot find anything on the offensive end of the floor. Jordan Price cannot buy a bucket in the first half of games, despite leading the team in scoring.
If those three can put a good product on the court in the first half, combined with the fight the team has, La Salle can still be successful.
"I do think that if Jordan, Steve and Jerrell play the way that they normally do and we play defense the way that we are taught that we can beat anybody," Giannini said. "That's our formula."
The pieces are in place for La Salle to turn things around. It is not time to panic, yet.
Saturday at the Palestra against Temple will be where they have to start making it translate to the win column.