For new La Salle coach Ashley Howard, the last few months have been a whirlwind of hype.
Since the pep band played while students, administrators, alumni and friends showered blue and gold streamers down on him when he was introduced as the 19th coach of the Explorers in April, to the events he had with boosters he had last week, Howard has felt the level of anticipation and excitement about over him rebuilding the program.
Now, as the season opener at Temple is approaching on Tuesday, the Philadelphia native finds it hard to hide his own excitement over walking on to the court for the first time as the head coach of his own program.
"I'm excited," said Howard, who played at and graduated from Drexel. "I can't wait for that first game. I've been dreaming of this my entire life. … I am looking forward to seeing the team that's going out there will be my product. Where are we? What have I done? I know we won't be perfect. I'm excited because I know our players are excited. This group of player have worked their tails off for our team and now we'll start to see where they are.
"We're a better team than we were in the summer. We're better than we were in September. I think we will continue to get better."
Howard, who succeeds John Giannini, is in a polar-opposite position at La Salle from when he was the lead assistant for a Villanova program that won two NCAA titles and three Big East Tournament championships during his tenure that began in 2013.
La Salle has been to the NCAA Tournament (2013) once since Howard graduated from Monsignor Bonner High School in 1999.
Anticipation outside of the La Salle family isn't high, as the Explorers, who finished 13-19 last season, were picked to finish 12th in Atlantic 10 preseason poll.
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Howard thinks folks might be underestimating the talent on his roster.
Guard Pookie Powell was 10th in the Atlantic 10 in scoring (16.9 ppg) and is a preseason second-team all-conference selection. Guards Isiah Deas (9.5 ppg) and Saul Phiri (6.2 ppg) return, who started 10 and 27 games last year, respectively.
It's hard to know what new players will do, but three transfer students – Traci Carter from Marquette, Imhotep Charter grad David Beatty from South Carolina, and Cheddi Mosely from Boston University have nice credentials.
Howard said he is still sorting out his combinations and might not decide his full starting lineup until he gets a feeling the day of the Temple game.
Despite the success Howard had at Villanova, he's not patterning his style to be "Wildcats Light" – different players, different situation.
The thing he will take from 'Nova coach Jay Wright is that a successful program starts with a commitment to playing strong defense. That's the same thing he learned when he was an assistant to former Drexel coach Bruiser Flint and Louisville coach Chris Mack, who hired Howard as an assistant at Cincinnati.
"I've worked for some great coaches, and what I'm trying to do is think of the things that I did at the places I worked that I believe will work for this team," Howard said. "Still the common denominator among those guys was defense.
"You set the tone that way, by being a good defensive team and just relying on your offense to carry you. I think our team is making step in the right direction.
"That's the culture we want to establish at La Salle – a tough defensive team that competes on every possession. We have the personnel to do that. I think our guys are excited to see how they will perform against somebody other than each other."
Previewing the La Salle Explorers
Last year: 13-19, 7-11 in Atlantic Ten.
Coach: Ashley Howard (first season).
Key returnees: Pookie Powell, 6-0, grad (16.0 ppg, 130 assists); Isiah Deas, 6-6, jr (9.5 ppg); Saul Phiri, 6-4, jr (6.2 ppg).
Who's gone: F B.J. Johnson (20.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg); C Tony Washington (7.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg).
Who's new: Traci Carter, 6-1, Jr., transfer from Marquette; David Beatty, 6-2, So., transfer from South Carolina; Cheddi Mosely, 6-3, graduate transfer from Boston University..
What to look for: Hard to say, because, as Howard said, "Everything is new for everybody. Not only am I a new head coach but I've got a new coaching staff that I've never worked with. It's all brand-new." If the Explorers can get improvement out of some returning players, and if some of the transfers become impact players, they could surprise and do better than their predicted 12th-place finish in the A-10. Howard was brought in because the program needed a change. It will take some time for things to happen. Look for continuous improvement, not just wins and losses.
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