La Salle went through the first half of last season thinking offense, and it was working – for a while.
On Jan. 19, the Explorers defeated Davidson for their fifth straight win and seventh in their last eight games. With an 11-5 record, they knew they could just turn on the jets offensively and outscore opponents. But things started falling apart in a 90-52 loss to VCU on Jan. 22, and they would win only four more games the rest of the season to finish 15-15.
"Last year we just focused more on offense," said fifth-year senior B.J. Johnson, La Salle's top scorer and rebounder last season. "I think we felt that just because we could outscore anybody, we could win a lot of games. But that wasn't the case."
The Explorers finished last in the Atlantic 10 in three key defensive categories – points allowed (76.6 per game), field-goal percentage (.467) and three-point percentage (.394).
Johnson and his teammates discovered that scoring a lot of points didn't lead to success, and that didn't make them happy. The commitment changed in the summer to work on grinding at the defensive end of the court.
"We just changed our mind-set," Johnson said. "We came in with a mind-set that we weren't going to be the worst defensive team in the A-10 and one of the worst defensive teams in the country. Everything we do running-wise and conditioning-wise is based on our defensive performance."
John Giannini, entering his 14th season as La Salle's coach, said his methods of teaching defense are still the same. He said his guys have embraced the "want-to" part of playing D.
"When your team loses a lot in spite of being one of the better offensive teams in the conference, it's crystal clear when you analyze our season that we were a good offensive team and a bad defensive team," he said. "No matter what statistic you look at, that was the case."
The loss of guard Pookie Powell to a leg injury in the VCU game also contributed to the Explorers' slide. Powell returned to the lineup after six games, but the team continued to struggle.
"When Pookie got hurt, we turned out to be a very fragile team and we could no longer outscore people, and the rest of the season was pretty ugly," Giannini said.
With the Explorers losing Jordan Price, who ended his career at 20th and Olney with 1,623 points, they don't have quite the firepower. The 6-foot-7 Johnson, a transfer from Syracuse who averaged 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds and knocked down 84 three-pointers in his first season with the team, will be the key man at that end of the floor, and on defense.
The 6-foot Powell made a favorable impact after transferring from Memphis, averaging 13.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists, and shooting 84.3 percent on free throws. Giannini calls him "a workout maniac."
"We've had to ask Pookie to work out less," he said. "He's in unbelievable shape. He's stronger and more explosive and just never gets tired. His shooting has dramatically improved, so he's had a phenomenal off-season."
Graduate student Amar Stukes gives the Explorers another excellent passer in the backcourt. He averaged 4.3 assists last season and led the A-10 with a 2.4 assist-turnover ratio.
Giannini feels 6-10 senior Tony Washington feels more comfortable on the floor and is the best he's ever been physically. Washington averaged 4.0 rebounds in less than 16 minutes of playing time and will contribute to what the coach calls "a solid rebounding team."
Senior guard Johnnie Shuler provides experience. Sophomores Saul Phiri and Isiah Deas picked up some valuable playing time last year and Giannini thinks they're ready to contribute.
One newcomer who has caught Giannini's eye is 6-10 freshman Miles Brookins. He called Brookins "a tremendous surprise [who] we thought would help us some and get his feet wet, but he's much better than that. He'll be a big part of our rotation."
The Explorers are a mix of veterans and young players who didn't see much action last season.
"The great thing about that combination is that everyone is extremely excited and motivated," Giannini said. "The older guys are excited because it's their last chance and they really want to make the most of it and have a positive legacy. The new guys are excited because they've never gotten to play before and this is a new challenge for them."
La Salle starts out with a difficult non-conference schedule that includes the Big Five teams and 2017 NCAA participants Miami, Northwestern and Bucknell. There is optimism, but Giannini knows one of the keys to success is a strong defense.
"I think we've pushed our guys hard enough through June, July, August, September and October that we have a good defensive foundation," Giannini said, "so that hopefully we don't have to beat them up every day in practice to play good defense in games."