THE FACES were the same. So were the uniforms. But, after 10 games, this La Salle team was mostly unrecognizable.
The Explorers could not shoot. They could not pass. They could not play.
Who exactly were those imposters purporting to be Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills, Steve Zack, Jerrell Wright and sixth-man supreme Tyrone Garland?
Last night at Gola Arena against Wagner, they looked very much like their old selves, passing the ball beautifully (21 assists, three turnovers), making long shots (9-for-21 from the arc) and getting just about every rebound (50-29 margin as Zack got a career-high 17 boards).
These La Salle players put up those kinds of numbers, they will have a chance to beat anybody on their schedule. Wagner, playing without leading scorer Latif Rivers (1,290 career points), wasn't going to win this game anyway. Without Rivers, it was never close, La Salle winning, 80-54.
"We've been waiting to see when we might look like our usual selves," La Salle coach John Giannini said.
It was 25-9 after 11 minutes and never close after that. This was much closer to the La Salle that had been anticipated.
Wagner (5-7) is the pick to win the Northeast Conference, with Rivers and fellow senior guard Kenneth Ortiz, the two-time NEC Defensive Player of the Year. Ortiz had 18 against the Explorers, but his team got overwhelmed on the glass.
"I don't think we played horrible tonight," said Wagner coach Bashir Mason, who played a terrific point guard for Bruiser Flint at Drexel and graduated in 2007. "I thought the difference was rebounds, 19 second-chance points, 22 offensive rebounds. It's tough to play that way when you allow a team to do that."
The coach said it was "just my decision," why Rivers did not play, "nothing he did too serious or crazy. I just thought it would be best for him not to play tonight."
La Salle (6-5) played really well in the first half, but did not make shots (35.9 percent). In fact, the teams combined to miss 45 shots in the first 20 minutes. La Salle kept playing well in the second half and made shots (51.7 percent in the final 20 minutes).
"[Giannini] talked about it after the Villanova game, this year period, we weren't passing the ball as well as we had in the past," said Duren who had 11 points, six assists and no turnovers.
Wagner could do nothing with the La Salle front line of Wright (17 points, seven rebounds) and Zack. They combined for 29 points and 24 rebounds.
"I know I played very poorly against Villanova," said Zack, who had 12 points, three assists and four blocks in addition to all those boards. "I had a really off game that day. The coaches and myself really challenged me to just go out and just rebound the basketball."
"The big guys that we've recruited and coached get the message very clearly that we want them to be true big guys," Giannini said. "We don't want them dribbling around and shooting the ball and trying to act like they're 6-foot instead of 6-11."
Last season, La Salle outscored its opponents by 360 points from the three-point line, an average of 10.6 points per game. This season, they were being outscored by 45 points until they got Wagner by 15.
It is not a major secret what has gone wrong. Duren, a 39 percent three-point shooter last season, was shooting 21 percent. Mills was down from 38 percent to 35 percent. D. J. Peterson was down from 40 percent to 23 percent.
Obviously, Ramon Galloway, with his 94 threes, was a huge part of that long-range offense last season. Garland is more a scorer than a shooter, but he is certainly way better than his 35 percent shooting overall.
"Shooting is shockingly contagious," Giannini said.
The coach called his team's shooting "just bizarre."
Scoring is up all around the country because of how games are being called. But La Salle, the 36th-most efficient offensive team last season, was 153rd going into the game. Their three-point accuracy was down a full 10 percent.
The ball movement against Wagner looked La Salle-like. So did the extra pass leading to a lot of hockey assists with wide-open shots at the end of many sequences.
"Our mentality was great," Giannini said. "Our unselfishness was great."
Mills (13 points) rediscovered his shot. Garland had eight points, five assists and five rebounds. Walk-on Hank Davis got the game's final basket and the first of his career. Jermaine Davis got the first points of his career.
"You're not going to be in a slump for a whole year," Duren said. 'All of our guards come in every morning and shoot extra so we know that our time is coming. It's just a matter of what game or when do we get it together."