La Salle center Tony Washington and guard Johnnie Shuler wait in anticipation at the Palestra.
(Luke Risher/Staff Photographer)
Heading into the 2017-2018 season, La Salle’s primary goal was to fix their team defense, which allowed opponents to score 76.6 points per game, shoot 47% from the field, and 39% from 3-point range last year. What was frustrating for fans was that the defensive struggles did not stem from a lack of talent or athleticism. Players like Amar Stukes, Tony Washington, and Demetrius Henry all had previously shown signs of strong defensive play. There was no player in last year’s rotation that one could undoubtedly point at as a liability on that end. But the team never looked “locked in” as a collective unit. Instead, it always looked more like five players all guarding their own man.
A secondary goal for La Salle has been replacing the production of Jordan Price. Without one of the nation’s top scorers the past three seasons, the team’s offense figured to be depleted in a big way. So far, the Explorers scoring numbers have declined, scoring 69.3 points per game this season after putting up 75.5 ppg in 2016-2017. However, replacing Price’s minutes with Saul Phiri looks to have La Salle playing better team defense. The Explorers are giving up 6.9 fewer points than last season. Throughout his career, Price had a defensive rating of 107.4 and a defensive box plus/minus of -1.3. This season, Phiri has put up a defensive rating of 101.5 and a 2.7 defensive box plus/minus, the highest on the team of any players getting regular minutes.
At first glance, an explanation for Phiri’s defensive numbers looking better than Price’s is the pace La Salle is playing at. Last year La Salle seemed to emphasize getting right into their halfcourt offense and making a play when it is available, regardless of how much time was on the shot clock. But this year, the Explorers are more patient and deliberate in their attack. One would think that this slower pace would assist the defensive numbers by limiting the opponent’s possessions and field goal attempts. However, La Salle’s opponents this year are averaging 60 field goal attempts per game, two more attempts per game than last year. The biggest difference in La Salle’s defensive numbers is in the opponents 2-point shooting efficiency. This year the Explorers are holding opponents to 46% on 2-point shots, a better number than last year’s 51% of opponent's shots inside the arc dropping for points.
La Salle has been able to control their opponent’s interior shooting numbers by using a couple different man-to-man defensive looks. Switching has become a staple of the Explorer’s defense this year. With their starting lineup of Amar Stukes, Pookie Powell, Saul Phiri, B.J. Johnson, and Tony Washington, the Explorers switch on nearly all screens and handoffs, which helps neutralize the opponent’s pick-and-roll attacks. The only player that does not always switch when defending the screener is Tony Washington, who, depending on the situation and matchup, sometimes plays a more traditional pick and roll defense by hedging to disrupt the ball handler and then scrambling back into the paint.
Although the season opening win against St. Peter's was a dominating defensive effort, where they gave up just 40 points to the Peacocks, the best early evidence of La Salle’s defensive potential came in the 75-71 win vs Penn. In that game, Penn shot 33.8% from the field, and just 25% from three. La Salle’s team defense held a collective defensive rating of 88.8.
Following the win against Penn, head coach Dr. John Giannini touched on defense’s importance for this specific La Salle team.
“First and foremost, we’re trying to be a good defensive team so we can win games when we don’t click offensively,” he said. “We didn’t click offensively today, and we still won. To hold Penn to 33% from the field is going to be quite the accomplishment when you look back at this season. I don’t think many (teams) will do that.”
La Salle’s next game came against South Alabama from the Sun Belt Conference. This was a team that La Salle was expected to handle quite easily. La Salle played a strong first half, outscoring the Jaguars 47-27, and dictating the tempo of the game. The Explorers started the game on a 14-4 run, and went on another 11-point run midway through the first half. But La Salle’s defense began to leak in the second half, and the Jaguars were able to score 46 points to cut La Salle’s deficit to 8 points when the game ended. Absolutely not the performance Dr. John Giannini wanted out of his team’s defense to finish this game.
Following the game, Dr. Giannini reiterated his focus on defense. “Some people play zone and man,” he said, “we play our man two different ways, and we had some players that when we tried to change, didn’t execute at all and we gave up wide open layups in crunch time, which is obviously unacceptable.”
A variation in how La Salle plays their man-to-man defense can be seen in how they disrupt ball screens. One strategy is switching on all picks and relying on the versatility and athleticism of the individual defenders. While this strategy can keep teams from finding open pull up jumpers off of picks, it can lead to mismatches and breakdowns when trying to regroup. The Explorers like to use this defensive look when they have a small lineup on the floor, or, when Miles Brookins is playing, who uses his length and activity to harass ball handlers.
Another defensive look that the Explorers will utilize on screens is having the off-ball defender sag low into the paint, giving the on-ball defender plenty of room to go underneath the pick and cut off any attempt at dribble driving. This defense is good for defending the interior and keeping rolling big men from creating offense, but it is susceptible to giving up open perimeter shots. Boston College, Northwestern, and Temple were all able to create many open 3-point opportunities when La Salle utilized this defensive method.
One of the wrinkles South Alabama specifically utilized in the second half to attack La Salle’s defense were smaller lineups with five perimeter players who could help shoot their way back into the game. The Jaguars small-ball lineup forced La Salle to go small as well, leaving Tony Washington and Miles Brookins on the bench, as they combined for a total of 15 minutes despite only having 1 total foul, meaning the Explorers played 25 minutes without a true center on the court.
“I’d rather have Tony or Miles out there,” Dr. Giannini said following the win. “We are more comfortable, we can do more things offensively, using our big guy as a screener. We’re more comfortable playing with a big guy in the game. But, I don’t think it’s wise to have a 6-10 guy chasing one of those 6-6 shooters around the court… I think if we would have played big, we would have lost. They made nine threes with us playing our quickest lineup. What would happen if we played our slowest?”
After the Explorers were forced to abandon having a prototypical big man on the floor against South Alabama, the next three games, all losses to high-level Power 6 conference teams, Dr. Giannini continued to show his desire to have Washington or Brookins in the game. The team only spent a total of 7 minutes without either of them playing during that stretch. However, Northwestern and Boston College were still able to score against La Salle without many problems, each putting up 82 points.
The Miami game was a different story. While the Explorers offense could not get anything going at all, scoring only 46 points, shooting 29% from the field and 0-15 from three, La Salle’s defense kept the game competitive. They held Miami to 57 points (just 19 in the first half), 37% from the field, and 5-15 from three. Considering Miami is averaging 81 points on 50% shooting from the field and 35% from three on the season, La Salle’s defensive effort should be considered a success.
Against Temple, the Explorers started the game off in decent shape. While the Owls were making shots and scored 43 points in the first half, La Salle was able to make just enough plays offensively to stay in the game. In the second half, La Salle’s defense began to unwind as the Owls were able to build their lead to 11 points. Just when the game looked to be falling apart for La Salle, they went on a nearly four minute 11-0 run to tie the game. Eventually, the Explorers would take the lead with two minutes left in the game. Following Pookie Powell’s clutch three pointer, the game was iced off with two excellent defensive plays by the Explorers. They locked up in crunch time following a steal of Quentin Rose from Saul Phiri with under 30 seconds left in the game and then a chase down volleyball spike block off the backboard by B.J. Johnson as time expired. While La Salle’s defense was not playing to their full potential the entire game, giving up 83 points, the Explorers got stops down the stretch when they needed them the most.
Seven games into this young season, the Explorers’ defense has shown signs of becoming more active and engaged compared to last year’s. The team’s statistics show clear areas for improvement (opponents shooting 40% from 3-point range). But they have played a tough schedule thus far and if the team continues to get better throughout the season, and they continue to stress emphasis on defending, La Salle will have a great chance to win many games and have a successful season. The Explorers next challenge will be a trip to Belfast, Ireland to face Towson on Friday, December 1st.