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Preview: Villanova Basketball vs. La Salle

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The Wildcats Head to the Palestra to Face Ashley Howard and the Explorers

Trivia: What Philadelphia school has three L’s in its name and seven L’s in its record?

If you guessed La Salle, you are today’s big winner. Please email Chris Lane directly to collect your prize.

Shortly after the ‘Cats cut down the nets in San Antonio last April, Ashley Howard was named the new head coach of the La Salle Explorers, replacing coach John Giannini, under whom he previously served as an assistant. As all of us know, Howard also served as an assistant coach under Jay Wright from 2013-2018 and helped the Wildcats capture two national titles. If we are to assume that Jay “welcomes” Howard as he welcomed Baker, La Salle may lose its accreditation.

To say that Howard’s squad is struggling would be an understatement. Currently, La Salle is 0-7 with losses to Drexel and Temple as well as an absolute walloping at the hands of Miami. At the risk of Michiganing this preview, I will just say this: La Salle is a very bad basketball team. Sitting at 226th in KenPom, they rank sub-250 in nearly every statistical category. To put it plainly: they cannot shoot and they cannot play defense.

Any discussion of La Salle begins with Rashawn “Pookie” Powell. The Memphis transfer, who has been playing for approximately 45 years, is averaging over 18 points a game in just under 34 minutes. Last year, when Villanova was lit up by BJ Johnson, Powell cobbled together 12 of his own points on a dismal 5-16 from the field and 0-7 from deep. That being said, Powell is a quick and crafty point guard with a strong first step. However, he takes a lot of shots and is not very efficient from the floor. Not lacking confidence, he still chucks up almost 6 threes a game despite only hitting at a 29% clip.

NCAA Basketball: La Salle at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Powell is assisted by junior Isiah Deas, who played his high school ball with Shamorie Ponds. Last year, Deas played primarily as a sixth man and chipped in 9 points against Villanova before fouling out. This year, with the departure of BJ Johnson, Deas is averaging 13.3 points per game. Deas has a decent mid-range game and is slowly developing an ability to take defenders off the dribble if they over-commit. He’s also shooting 36% from three on nearly seven attempts per game. At this point, he is La Salle’s only legitimate three point threat. In fact, of the players who have even attempted a three this year, only one other player is shooting over 30%, Boston University transfer Cheddi Mosely.

As with any new head coach, Howard is entitled to a couple years to implement his system and recruit players that fit. At this point, Howard, like Baker, is making the best of what he has as he tries to put in place the systems that will define him as a head coach. Presumably, those systems will resemble those he helped implement at Villanova: positionless basketball, fluid/open offense, and plenty of green lights.

Watching La Salle, you can see that the bones are there but that Howard doesn’t have the players to build upon those bones just yet. La Salle plays fast, with a top 75 tempo, and, despite having basically one three point shooter, ranks in the top 120 in three point attempts. However, they can’t rebound, ranking sub-250 on both the offensive and defensive end. This leads to very few second-chance points for a team that really struggles to score at times, averaging just 69 points a game (258th in the country)

One random interesting tidbit from KenPom: La Salle leads the nation in free throw defense. If you’re thinking, “well, if they are playing defense during a free throw, of course they lead the nation because that is not allowed!!!,” you are correct. Again, please email Chris Lane directly. However, having delved into KenPom’s explanation for this statistic, it basically boils down to La Salle fouling almost exclusively under the basket where, statistically, players are poorer at shooting free throws. This statistic is so random and I am too tired to try and figure out what in God’s name this means for this game. Probably nothing. Maybe the rims.

This game will be a chance to see Jay Wright once again face off with a former assistant as his coaching tree continues to grow. Additionally, the game will be played at the historic Palestra, something that always spices up an otherwise dead on arrival rivalry. While Villanova should be able to handle the Explorers easily, nothing can be taken for granted in a season that continues to surprise us.

The game tips off Saturday at 3:00 p.m. on ESPN 2.