A bunch of sites that like to refer to something called the "City 6" made La Salle the hot pre-season pick to win the Big 5 this year. This Sunday's game will be their first of the round-robin, but the 5-4 Explorers certainly haven't looked like the best team in the city with losses to Manhattan, Penn State, Providence and Northern Iowa, and no wins against teams ranked higher than 125th by KenPom.com.
Villanova leads the all-time series with La Salle 35-27, with the Explorers improving to 2-10 all-time against Jay Wright last season with an overtime win at Tom Gola Arena. That victory was a turning point for their season, as they charged toward the Sweet Sixteen.
The Explorers lost guard Ramon Galloway from last season's team and really have struggled to replace what he brought last season. He was their best player on the court who could bring the ball up and find his own shot, as well as a vocal leader for La Salle.
Tyreek Duren is still on the team, however, and the 6'0" senior point guard was the second-leading scorer and overtime-hero against the Wildcats last season. He is second on this year's team in scoring average behind Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland, and leads the team with 3.6 assists per game.
Garland has been doing his best to lead the Explorers, however, putting up 16.3 points per game, but his efforts haven't pushed the teams' offensive efficiency over the hump. La Salle is just slightly above the Division I average, ranking 136th in Division I. With Galloway leading the way last season, they ranked 36th in the nation, offensively, so the drop-off has been steep.
The experienced backcourt has good quickness and if they can flip the right switches, they are a dangerous force. Sam Mills has made 12 of his 32 shots from beyond the arc and has been shot-for-shot the best threat La Salle has from deep, though Duren and Garland have outpaced him for attempts so far.
Villanova gets about 32.1 percent of it's points from beyond the arc, while connecting on around the D-1 average from that range -- indicating that the 'Cats like to launch the ball from deep. Nova is 8th in the country, taking 45.4 percent of it's shot attempts from outside.
The Wildcats are pretty effective inside though, scoring 41.8% of their points inside the paint and putting up 71.7 percent from the charity stripe.
La Salle shoots a little bit better (72.2%) from the charity stripe, but they have been below average from everywhere on the floor. Defensively, they are strongest patrolling the paint, holding opponents below the average inside, while giving up points beyond the arc.
While their defense may not improve, historical data seems to suggest that it's only a matter of time before they start hearing that 'swoosh' after letting go of the ball from deep. Duren has been in a major 3-point slump, making just 22.2 percent after nailing 38.5 and 39.2 in the last two seasons. Last season, La Salle ranked in the top-30 teams for distance shooting, and the roster hasn't changed much, so the team-wide slump could end sooner than later.
With finals in full swing (tomorrow is a one-day-break in the middle of exams), it must be nice for the 'Cats to stay local. Big 5 games at this time of the season are a perfect way to keep the team engaged in classes and refreshed despite the end-of-December stress.
Playing hard for 40 minutes will be important, however, even though La Salle appears to be no-match for these Wildcats on paper, the Explorers were very successful last season, and they're looking to get back to form. With few opportunities for a signature win left, the target will be firmly on #10-ranked Villanova's back on Sunday afternoon.
"The Doctor" John Gianini earned his Ph.D. in kinesiology and sports psychology while serving as a Graduate Assistant at Illini. His first head coaching stint came at Rowan University, where he led the emerging South Jersey school to two Division III Final Fours and one D-3 National Championship. From there, he spent eight seasons at the University of Maine, where he led the Black Bears to the only two 20-win seasons in program history.
He became head coach at La Salle in 2004 after the school failed to lure alumnus Fran Dunphy away from Penn. The program has improved immensely under his leadership, however, setting a school record for most Atlantic-10 wins in a season in his first year. The last two seasons have seen La Salle win 21 and 24 wins, respectively, including their first NCAA tournament bid since 1991 and a trip to the second weekend.
La Salle's illustrious list of Alumni is highlighted by Fox Sports 1 broadcaster Bill Raftery, and also includes Gawker (and former Deadspin) Editor-in-Chief, AJ Daulerio and Pro Wrestling Illustrated writer, Brady Hicks. Those names are joined by The Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick as well.
Anne Hathaway, the most-recent portrayer of Catwoman, is the daughter of two La Salle alumni.
Their most important alumnus, however, is likely John McShain, a successful contractor whose company was responsible for building a number of important Washington, D.C. landmarks. Those buildings include the massive and confusing corridors of the Pentagon, as well as the Kennedy Center and Jefferson Memorial.
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