On Thursday Dec. 31st the La Salle Explorers will travel down to Ft. Myers, Florida to play the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast University. In 2013, La Salle and FGCU both went to the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Tournament and have been unsuccessful in their efforts to return to the tournament since then. This season, the programs have shared disappointing slow starts. However, a win on New Year's Eve would bring either team to an even .500 record to begin the 2016 calendar year, with La Salle at 4-5 and FGCU at 6-7 to start the season.
One key matchup to watch for on Thursday will be the battle between sophomore guards Johnnie Shuler and Christian Terrell. Terrell is the second leading scorer on the FGCU team with 14.8 points per game. He is shooting a solid 39 percent from the three-point line and is second on the team in offensive rating per 100 possessions with 113.4.
La Salle’s Johnnie Shuler leads the team in assists per game with 3.1 and is third on the team in scoring with 10.3 points per game. Shuler should be aggressive in attacking Terrell off the dribble. Although he has improved his defense from last season, Terrell struggles when opponents dribble drive against him. In FGCU’s most recent matchup against South Dakota, Terrell’s defensive assignment was Casey Kasperbauer, who managed to put up 31 points in the contest. During the waning moments of the overtime period, South Dakota scored on seemingly every possession, and it was Terrell either getting blown by off the dribble, or standing under the basket on the back end of an opponent's layup. Look for Johnnie Shuler to come right at Terrell on Thursday to take some pressure off of Jordan Price.
Speaking of Price, his matchup with Marc-Eddy Norelia will be another key factor in this game. Both players are the leading scorers on their team (Price with 22.6 points per game, Norelia with 15.5 points per game). What will be interesting about this matchup is the contrasting styles of play. Price is a perimeter player who does his damage either from the 3-point line or off the dribble. Norelia on the other hand, is an interior power forward, with a post game that manufactures tough baskets. He additionally complements his big man presence with a nice mid-range game. Although he is an interior minded power forward, Norelia is an athletic marvel and it will be interesting to see how he contains Price.
If Norelia is up to the task and can keep Price from finding a shooting rhythm, it will be hard for La Salle to stay with the Eagles. This is because they will have to contain Norelia, who should be able to take La Salle to town on the low block and take advantage of La Salle's soft inside defense.
A third key matchup heading into this game is between the two European forwards that come off the bench for their respective teams; Yevgen Sakhniuk hailing from Ukraine and Filip Cvjeticanin from Croatia. FGCU is the third best team in the nation at defending the 3-point shot and because of this, La Salle will need to punch the ball inside to create some room for Price, Shuler, and Cleon Roberts on the perimeter. This could set up Sakhniuk to have a productive game off the bench and use his crafty interior scoring skills to generate some offense for La Salle. Sakhniuk’s matchup in Cvjeticanin is a 6-9 catch-and-shoot 3-point specialist. Although Cvjeticanin has struggled this season to find his shot consistently (34% from three), he is the type of player that can get super hot out of nowhere and make multiple 3-pointers in a row. Considering how Cvjeticanin hasn’t made multiple baskets in a game since November 23, he is due for a hot shooting stretch.
Ultimately, Thursday’s game will come down to how well FGCU executes defensively against Price and Shuler. If those two are able to get into a scoring rhythm and the team collectively shoots well from the perimeter, La Salle will have an opportunity to begin the New Year on a high note. However, if FGCU is able to contain Price and Shuler, while controlling the defensive boards and limiting their own turnovers, FGCU will prevail at home in this matchup.
Photo: Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports