Benjamin Boswell (@BenjaminBoswell)
For fans of college basketball, it is the best month of the year: March. This is the month when everything comes into fruition and teams need to start playing at their full potentials. Every eligible team in the nation has the same goal: punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament. If the La Salle Explorers want to go dancing, they will have to string together five wins in a row, a feat they have not accomplished all season, in five consecutive days. But, the Explorers path to the A-10 championship is laid out before them and the roster is as deep as it has been all season, with all eight available scholarship players ready and healthy for head coach Dr. John Giannini to use in the tournament.
La Salle’s A-10 tournament begins on Wednesday night against in-state foe Duquesne. The Dukes of Duquesne are the tournament’s 11 seed and had lost eight games in a row before defeating Saint Joseph’s on Saturday night. Duquesne is lead offensively by their backcourt, with seniors Derrick Colter (17.6 points per game, .351 3P%) and Micah Mason (18.1 points per game, .419 3P%). For the Explorers to win this game, they will have to defend the perimeter against the Dukes, who as a team, have the 21st most three-point attempts in the nation and shoot 36% from outside.
Because the Atlantic 10 conference format does not re-seed every round, if the Explorers beat the Dukes on Wednesday, their next game would be Thursday against sixth seeded Davidson. Lead by their senior guard Jack Gibbs, who averages 24.7 points per game, the Davidson Wildcats are a team that scores a lot of points (79.7 per game), but also give up a lot of points (78.2 points per game). In the one game La Salle played Dayton this year, the Wildcats’ Explorer-killer was Brian Sullivan, who scored 20 points and dished out seven assists in the Wildcats’ win. A second round win against Davidson would send a loud message to the rest of the conference that La Salle is here to play and is not already looking ahead to next season as some of the fans may already be doing. If La Salle plays tough defense for 40 minutes and exposes Davidson’s defensive issues, the Explorers have a fighter’s chance against a Wildcat team that could be rusty after four days in a row without a game. As a team who has fallen to inferior conference opponents before this season in George Mason, George Washington and Fordham, La Salle could be next to upset Davidson.
In the event that La Salle wins against Dayton, they would then play their third game in as many days against number two seed VCU. VCU has made it to the NCAA tournament seven of the last nine years and will certainly not be happy with any postseason result other than a chance in the NCAA tournament. If there is one thing that helps the Explorers going into this potential matchup, it is that they will be riding a two-game win streak and will most likely be filled with confidence after two wins in consecutive days. VCU on the other hand, will have five full days off from games since their last game, including a tough one-point loss to Dayton. It will be a challenging game for the Explorers, especially considering the depth VCU plays with, as they have 10 players on the roster that average double digit minutes per game. But if the Rams overlook what will be a red-hot Explorer team, anything is possible.
A semifinal matchup will be against either St. Bonaventure, or the winner of the UMass/ Rhode Island game. La Salle lost both their games against UMass and Rhode Island and defeated St. Bonaventure at Tom Gola arena in their one matchup. All three of these teams would be a formidable matchup for La Salle and an Explorer win would require La Salle continuing to play the best basketball they would be playing all season.
The championship round of the tournament is where the Explorers are hoping that one of their fellow underdogs can run the table along with them. Because the A-10 conference does not reseed every round, it is in the realm of possibility that La Salle could play a low seed like George Mason or Saint Louis in the championship game. However unlikely, this is a scenario that Explorer fans would dream to have and certainly put the team in as good of a position to win the A-10 tournament as they could be in.
As unlikely as it looks, the blueprint is set and La Salle knows what they have to do to return to the NCAA tournament. Five wins in five days is what it will take. No doubt, pulling off this feat would be an astronomical accomplishment for this year’s team. It will take a parlay of events that the Explorers will look to cash in on; La Salle playing better than they have been all season, some lucky bounces in their favor, and some help defeating the A-10 giants from fellow underdogs wouldn’t hurt either. If all these scenarios lineup for the Explorers, this would be one of the biggest college basketball storylines of the season.
Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
By Benjamin Boswell
As a long season for La Salle basketball fans winds down, one player that deserves credit for improving his play over the season is redshirt sophomore guard Amar Stukes.
Stukes is a homegrown talent who attended La Salle College High School in Philadelphia. Despite his success there, he was a two-star recruit with good size (6-2), solid defensive abilities and an overall raw offensive game coming in La Salle. During Stukes’ redshirt freshman season, he averaged 5.3 points, 1.3 assists, and 1.4 rebounds, while shooting 44% from the field in 22 minutes per game.
When this season began, Explorer fans knew Stukes needed to play up to his potential consistently as he stepped into an improved role as a full-time starter. The season did not start off very well for Stukes as he shot just 6-36 from the field and 0-8 on 3-pointers through the first four games of the season.
Considering how short La Salle’s bench is, Stukes’ minutes fluctuated heavily over the season. He has played at least 34 minutes in fourteen games this season and five games where he played all 40 minutes, but he has also played fewer than 23 minutes in eight games. When La Salle’s bench was at its deepest, having all nine of their available scholarship players healthy to play for three consecutive non-conference games against Drexel, Miami and Villanova, Stukes was the player whose minutes declined the most, averaging only 19.7 minutes per game for that three-game stretch. Then as the injury bug re-plagued the Explorers’ frontcourt, Stukes’ minutes inclined, playing all 40 minutes in consecutive games against FGCU and UMass. Part of the reason for his inconsistent minutes could be due to some foul trouble he has gotten into as he has at least four fouls in 10 games. But in the back-to-back games against Drexel and Villanova, Stukes came off the bench for both contests and compiled only three personal fouls in 41 total minutes.
Although La Salle’s bench is paper thin and the team as a whole has struggled in nearly every facet of the game this season, a big concern regarding Stukes’s play has been the fact that he has not improved his stats by much since his freshman season. Despite playing 7.4 more minutes per game this season than he did last season, Stukes’s scoring only improved from 5.3 to 5.6 points per game, his assists from 1.3 to 2.9 and rebounds from 1.4 to 1.9 per game. In a largely expanded role, Stukes was expected to play more aggressively this season and get to the rim to create offense, but as the season drug along for La Salle, Stukes really had not been doing any of this and often appeared to be a non-factor offensively for the Explorers.
Many of Stukes’s struggles this season have to due with his offensive skill set not fitting well with what coach Giannini has him doing in the offense. If Amar Stukes is going to be a starting point guard, his ideal role is initiating the offensive action by either coming off a high pick or on a dribble drive, then dishing it to a big down low, or to a shooter on the wing. What you don't want to rely on Stukes to do is find shots on the perimeter, which is what the offense this season has had him do. 3-point shooting is the weakest part of Stukes game, so hiding him in the corner of a 1-4 or 1-2-2 set does not do his skill set any justice.
Despite his inconsistent minutes and struggles for the beginning and middle part of the season, Stukes has steadily improved his play to the point where he has strung together some nice games during the month of February. Stukes best two games came in a 17-point, 5-rebound effort against VCU and a 12-point, 6-assist, 6-rebound game in La Salle’s most recent win against George Mason. Stukes has averaged 9 points, 3.1 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 30 minutes per game over the past month, an improvement over his season averages.
Stukes’ long-term future as a major contributor for La Salle is cloudy at this point. Stukes will be competing for point guard minutes with both Johnnie Shuler and Pookie Powell next season. For Stukes to make an argument for playing time in a much deeper backcourt, he will have to let his play this season do the talking.
Photo: (AP Photo/Zach Gibson)The Associated Press