The 2015-2016 season for the La Salle Explorers basketball team was a year of learning and development. Even from the beginning of the season, despite optimism from head coach John Giannini, inferences could be made about how the season would play out by looking at the roster makeup. With one eligible player taller than 6-7 and only eight eligible players on scholarship, the Explorers were predictably small in size and thin in numbers.
There was a chance though, heading into the season, that the Explorers could have found success with this roster. They did win four of their first five games, most notably against Towson in the season opener. But injuries to the frontcourt kept an already short roster playing, at many times, with five guards on the floor at once. A recipe for disaster if the guards are already winded from playing the entire game without rest (as they often did).
The Explorers were on a seven game losing streak when they made a change to the game plan and started controlling the pace of the game by pumping the brakes on offense. A January 9th home game vs. Dayton was the shock of the season for La Salle, as they defeated the top ranked Flyers 61-57 with an ultra-conservative style that had them dribbling the shot clock out to get just one look at the basket off a quick set. Then they would forgo any chance at an offensive rebound to get back on D and contain the opponent’s offense. For Dayton, the slower pace of the game really took their swing-motion offense out of its rhythm and the Flyers struggled mightily, shooting just 30% from the field.
Following the big win against Dayton, things really bottomed out for the Explorers. They lost the next 10 conference games they played by an average of 16 points. Even though the Explorers may have disrupted the tempo of some teams for maybe a half, there just wasn’t enough of an interior presence defensively for La Salle to get enough stops to stay in games.
The Explorers do get credit from fans for how, despite being so outsized and outnumbered, they fought their hearts out. Whenever La Salle played a road game, other school’s commentators would talk about how hard they play and how they go down swinging no matter what the deficit might show. The tough play was shown during the last stretch of the season. Even when buried in the bottom of the conference, having only won a single game in their last 18 tries, the Explorers managed to win three of their final six games to conclude the regular season.
Even though the Explorers were unable to make any noise in the A10 tournament, they did beat Duquesne handily in the first round by 15 points. Duquesne beat La Salle by 27 earlier in the season so it was a nice moral victory for the Explorers before falling to Davidson a day later, ending the tremulous season.
The MVP of the La Salle Explorers is a no-brainer. Jordan Price played in all 31 games, averaged 37.7 minutes, 19.2 points, 3 assists and 5.5 rebounds on 39% from the field and 37% from three. Many times during the season, it was Price who was the offensive catalyst, as they would run a 1-4 or 1-2-2 set and have Price handling the ball at the top of the play, then either isolating or coming off a high pick. Price’s 6-foot-5, 220 pound frame allowed him to muscle his way into the paint and stay balanced enough to either kick the ball back out to the perimeter, dump it into the post, or finish at the rim. When defenders sagged off of Price, his best offensive weapon was a pull-up jumper that extended beyond the three-point line.
La Salle also should be happy with the play of Johnnie Shuler. The sophomore combo-guard stepped into a starter role for the Explorers after averaging only six minutes a game his freshman year. Although his 9.6 points, 3 assists, and 3.7 rebounds in 35.6 minutes per game does not pop off the page as an exceptional stat line, Shuler showed toughness with his rebounding number despite standing only 5-foot-11 and defending opponent’s taller off-ball guards. Shuler also showed a potential for making timely plays, most notably in the first game of the season, when a last minute steal and pair of game-icing free throws helped defeat Towson by two points.
However, with that said, the La Salle Explorers interior defense was not good at all this season. The team’s defensive rating per 100 possessions of 109.5 is 325th out of 351 schools. The opponent’s 73.5 points per game is 223rd and is statistically aided by the slow pace the Explorers’ offense ran at. The two reasons for La Salle’s defensive ineffectiveness are the same two reasons the team struggled as a whole; size and depth. The Explorers entered this season with only two frontcourt players in Yevgen Sakhniuk and Tony Washington. Surely Dr. Giannini expected more time on the court for Sakhniuk, as he spoke highly of him heading into this season, claiming “He will continue (La Salle’s) success following the graduation of Jerrell (Wright) and Steve (Zack).” But Sakhniuk struggled to stay healthy for undisclosed reasons during the season and managed only 13 minutes per game in 19 games played. Although he showed great potential as an offensive weapon with some inside moves and a face up game, Sakhniuk will have to improve on his 38% clip on the free throw line to take his total offensive game to the next level.
Tony Washington was the only rim protector the Explorers had and he would often get into foul trouble and not be on the floor for important stretches of the game. And when he is in the game and trying to ration his fouls, he just couldn’t provide enough defensive aggressiveness or energy to make an impactful difference.
On the other hand, he was the only interior presence for the Explorers and they needed him to be on the court for a large portion of the game, especially down the stretch of games when defensive stops are a necessity. Being the only form of rim protection, Washington picked up fouls early and often, keeping him on the bench for long periods at a time. He ended up averaging 26.7 minutes, fouling out of six games and tallying at least four fouls in 15 games. In a loss against Rhode Island, Washington fouled out after 13 total minutes. However, Tony should not shoulder all the blame for his foul numbers. It was a monumental task bestowed upon the sophomore in his first season as a rotation player, he did the best he could, and played really well during the right circumstances, especially when we was not in foul trouble. But when Washington was not on the floor for the Explorers, there was just no way for them to get enough rebounds or defensive stops to compete for long stretches. Without Washington, the Explorers team defense would have to sag into the paint to help each other out, leaving the perimeter also exposed. Not to let Dr. G off the hook completely, but this was really a situation that had no answers to resolve. The players did their best, and that's all Dr. G can ask of them, but there just weren’t enough large bodies eligible on the roster to give La Salle a chance in many games.
This season was one of the toughest for anyone involved in La Salle basketball, but the Explorers are a young team, full of potential. That being said, it is an important offseason for La Salle basketball. The roster will significantly improve next season, as they are only losing one senior (Rohan Brown), gaining two freshmen from the incoming class, and three high level transfers that will be eligible next season. It would be a surprise if the Explorers do not take a huge step in the right direction next year.
Photo: Chris Szagola/AP Photo