La Salle has firepower, but can it stop anybody?
The Explorers' success will come down to their defense.
The La Salle coaching staff and fans were waiting through an endless 2015-16 season for the three transfers sitting out to become eligible. The theory was that, with B.J. Johnson, Pookie Powell and Demetrius Henry added to the returning talent, the Explorers would be an Atlantic 10 contender last season.
When La Salle put up 91 against Davidson on Jan. 19 to get to 5-1 in the conference, it really looked like the expectations might come true. Then, they came crashing down three days later in Richmond against VCU when the Explorers got absolutely buried, 90-52.
They were never really the same after that, finishing 4-10, losing to Davidson in the conference tournament to finish 15-15 overall. The Explorers could score on anybody, but anybody could score on them. They finished 69th nationally in offensive efficiency while averaging 75.5 points per game. They finished 251st in defensive efficiency, allowing 76.6 points per game. They were especially bad defending the three, allowing teams to shoot 39.4 percent, 336th nationally.
Johnson and Powell were not the problem. They had very good seasons, Johnson averaging 17.6 points while making 64 threes and 109 free throws. He also averaged 6.3 rebounds. Powell averaged 13.7 points and had games where nobody could stay in front of him.
Jordan Price and Cleon Roberts, who combined to score 669 points last season, are out of eligibility. Henry chose not to come back.
So it's Johnson, Powell, solid point guard Amar Stukes, veteran big man Tony Washington — all but Powell fifth-year seniors — along with the quick Johnnie Shuler and a lot of young, unproven players with promise.
Coach John Giannini is especially high on 6-10 freshman Miles Brookins from Mater Dei in California. He is, the coach said, way ahead of the typical young big man. He really is the X-factor. If he is good as the coach believes and is ready to show it from Day 1, this team could surprise.
Still, this is likely to come down to Johnson and Powell, two of the more talented players in the conference. It helps that in addition to shooting well from distance they also get to the foul line (a combined 219 attempts) and are very accurate (Johnson 83.8 percent, Powell 84.3 percent). Did they get better over the summer? Are they good enough to get La Salle back to contender status?
Check out this cool Pookie Powell workout/game action video.
The advanced-analytics website kenpom.com does not think it is going to happen, projecting the Explorers to finish 13-16, 8-10 in the Atlantic 10, going 0-5 against Big 5 teams (they play Saint Joseph's twice).
There is no reason to think this lineup won't be able to score even without Price, who was a born scorer. It really is going to come down to defense, which is rarely about schemes. It is largely about desire and, to some extent, personnel.
Defense is La Salle's great unknown, with kenpom predicting it will get better, but 166th nationally is still not great. Can Washington get back to his 2015-16 form when he was a much better rim protector than last season?
The Explorers have some difficult non-conference games early against Northwestern and Miami, teams that are likely to be ranked much of the season. Being competitive would be a positive sign. Winning would be a huge bonus.
They also have more than a few 50-50 games, season turners if they win more than their share. Close losses were not really the problem last season. There were just four that were really close. Being too easy to score on was the problem that led to 10 double-digit losses. If that problem gets fixed, this team has enough offensive answers to be competitive in most of its games.