BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Just over six months after an epic run to the Sweet 16, La Salle is back in the college basketball spotlight.
The Explorers were ranked No. 3 in the Atlantic 10's preseason poll of coaches and media, released Tuesday morning during the conference's media day at the Barclays Center.
Mid-major powerhouse Virginia Commonwealth was picked No. 1, and defending conference champion Saint Louis was picked No. 2.
It's not surprising that La Salle was picked so high. Many of coach John Giannini's players who captured the nation's attention last March are back for another campaign. Chief among them are three senior guards: Tyrone Garland, whose game-winning "Southwest Philly Floater" against Mississippi became a viral sensation; Big 5 Player of the Year candidate Tyreek Duren; and perimeter threat Sam Mills.
A pair of juniors, forward Jerrell Wright and center Steve Zack, will anchor the frontcourt.
Duren was named to the Atlantic 10's preseason all-conference first team. Garland and Wright made the third team.
At the center of it all is Giannini, now in on his 10th season on Olney Ave. Having brought La Salle out of the shadows in both the Atlantic 10 and Big 5, it's now his job to keep the team on an even keel.
Indeed, there hasn't been this much hype going into a season on Olney Ave. in quite a while. After all, last season's NCAA tournament berth was the program's first since 1992, and the three wins were the program's first in the Big Dance since 1990.
Talking with reporters Tuesday afternoon, the ever-modest Giannini downplayed the significance of the vote:
My thoughts about being picked third are the same as if we were picked 14th or first. It doesn't matter. It really doesn't. We always tell our players not to base our motivations or thoughts on anything external. We have to do our best – you have to win games on the court, you don't win them in polls. And we could not possibly have less regard for the significance of predictions.
Any message from a coach only goes as far as players are willing to listen to it. Giannini said his team has taken the point to heart:
The reason that this group has consistently improved since we stepped on campus is that they're good kids. They listen, they're receptive, they're pretty grounded, they're motivated.
We had Jordan Price transferring from Auburn, and I told him that our talent isn't necessarily from what he had [there], but we had more success. And the reason we had more success is that we've had role definition and guys who listen, and guys who are highly motivated and guys who are unselfish.
We just have good intangibles, and I don't see that ending right now. But this is a little bit of a new challenge, in terms of having people tell you that you're good, and having to talk about last year.
If any player personifies Giannini's philosophy, it's Duren. He's a true floor general for the Explorers, and likely the best in that role across the Big 5 and the Atlantic 10. As Giannini described him:
He's really important. I think we have a lot of good players, but he's a little bit unique in his consistency and in his poise. I would not want to play without him – I think he's really special.
Among the players for whom Duren will serve as a role model is much-touted freshman Amar Stukes. The Philadelphia native and product of La Salle College High made the Daily News' All-City team last spring, and was a signature recruit for Giannini. But with so much guard depth already at Giannini's disposal, Stukes will redshirt this season unless there's a major injury.
Stukes will redshirt this season, but he could take the floor if any of La Salle's veterans suffer significant injury. Giannini talked at length about his expectations for Stukes this season and in the future:
When we recruited Amar – it's a funny story with him and Khalid [Lewis, a redshirt sophomore who transferred form Delaware]. We try not to over-recruit. We found that we can play five guards over 25 minutes a game, and Amar was our top priority in that recruiting class. I think he's going to be very similar to Tyreek Duren, and that's saying an awful lot.
Amar Stukes is a big deal to us. But when Khalid Lewis was sounding like he wanted to commit to us, we told Amar, "Listen, if Khalid commits, we've got our five guys, and we're loyal to our guys."
Well, sure enough, Khalid commits, and two things happen. First, Amar just played too well for me to not want him. And second, Amar realized that he would really like to stay close to home. He has a wonderful family, he comes out of a great high school, and the thought of redshirting and maybe getting a masters degree meant something to him.
Because he's a Philly guy, he knows how good Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland are. And he said, "Wow, if I can practice against those guys every day, get stronger, work on my shot, see them graduate and then step in to one of those spots, I could do great things."
He saw that picture that we painted for him, and he took it, and it's going to be reality. He's going to be infinitely better next year than he is now, and he's going to be a very special player.
Now knock on wood, the other great thing about having him: God forbid one of these wonderful veteran players who have worked so hard to have a great year gets hurt. Amar Stukes steps in and I think he can play at the A-10 All-Rookie team level.
Expectations are also high at Saint Joseph's, which was ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll. The Hawks return two of their best scorers from last season in Ronald Roberts and Langston Galloway, both named to the preseason all-conference second team. Versatile forward Halil Kanacevic is also back to play a key role in the frontcourt.
Perhaps the biggest loss from last year for St. Joe's is point guard Carl Jones. He averaged 14.7 points, 2.6 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game last season, and played an average of 34.1 minutes per contest.
Hawks coach Phil Martelli said Tuesday that he expects junior Chris Wilson to step into the floor general role, with sophomore Kyle Molock as his deputy:
Chris Wilson is the next guy up. He's prepared, he's in great shape, and he has really studied his game and our game.
So he has to move forward. Kyle Molock has to get on the court, and he has to get knocked down – because he's coming off of three knee injuries and three surgeries. He's got to get knocked down, and we've got to find out.
It sounds cruel, but he's going to get knocked down, and he's either going to get up and he's going to be a basketball player, or he's going to get up and he's going to become a student assistant because he can't play.
Martelli has a much-touted freshman of his own in 6-foot-6 forward DeAndré Bembry, a Charlotte, N.C., native who played his high school basketball at St. Patrick's in Elizabeth, N.J. Martelli said he's excited for what Bembry brings, but realistic about the ups and downs of life as a freshman on Hawk Hill:
I expect that he'll be a college freshman. I think that he'll have great moments, but I think that he'll have moments of down times. I think he'll struggle off the court, like every college freshman. I think he'll be homesick at times, and I think that academically he'll be challenged because it's a challenging school.
But his basketball IQ and the way he conducts himself are beyond that of an 18-year-old. I'm excited to see how he measures up to the challenges of Langston every day in practice, and how he measures up in a league that has extraordinary talent. If you look at the first two [all-conference] teams, there's one junior on there. Everybody else is a senior. This is a man's league. So to assume that a young kid is [able to succeed right away] – you're going to have to earn your stripes.
Martelli has guided St. Joe's to the NIT two straight times, but his team hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 2007. As he enters his 19th season on Hawk Hill, Martelli will be looking to end that drought – and perhaps get a few critics in the bleachers off his back.
The Atlantic 10 as a whole suffered two major departures in the offseason, as Temple left for the American Athletic Conference and Xavier joined the Big East. But those moves could give more prominence to La Salle and St. Joe's, especially if they're able to win a lot of games.
The two Philadelphia schools won't be alone in trying to maintain the A-10's profile as one of the nation's top basketball-only conferences.
Virginia Commonwealth has its famed "havoc" defense, and a top talent in forward Juvonte Reddic. Head coach Shaka Smart has led the Rams to at least one NCAA tournament win in each of the last three seasons.
Saint Louis returns leading scorer Dwayne Evans, as well as the backcourt tandem of Mike McCall Jr. and Jordair Jett.
And while Temple and Xavier were big losses, the conference got a significant gain by luring George Mason from the Colonial Athletic Association. The Patriots will renew an old rivalry with VCU, and likely create new ones with George Washington and Richmond. Coach Paul Hewitt's roster includes 6-foot-8 Philadelphia native Erik Copes (Imhotep Charter), who led the team in rebounds and blocks last season.
The A-10 may not be what it once was, or even what it's been in recent years. Still, the conference will still provide plenty of tests for its top teams between now and the end of march.
1. Virginia Commonwealth (307 points, 19 first-place votes)
2. Saint Louis (288 points, 5 first-place votes)
3. La Salle (265 points)
4. Massachusetts (236 points)
5. Saint Joseph's (199 points)
6. Richmond (173 points)
7. Dayton (171 points)
8. George Mason (141 points)
9. Rhode Island (130 points)
10. George Washington (122 points)
11. Fordham (58 points)
12. St. Bonaventure (56 points)
13. Duquesne (38 points)
G Sr. Tyreek Duren, La Salle
G Sr. Chaz Wlliams, Massachusetts
G Jr. Treveon Graham, Virginia Commonwealth
F Sr. Dwyane Evans, Saint Louis
F Sr. Juvonte Reddic, Virginia Commonwealth
G Sr. Sherrod Wright, George Mason
G Sr. Xavier Mumford, Rhode Island
G Sr. Langston Galloway, Saint Joseph's
F Sr. Ronald Roberts, Saint Joseph's
F Sr. Isaiah Armwood, George Washington
G Sr. Branden Frazier, Fordham
G Sr. Cedrick Lindsay, Richmond
G Sr. Jordair Jett, Saint Louis
G Sr. Tyrone Garland, La Salle
F Jr. Jerrell Wright, La Salle