The proud basketball tradition had faded to a deep charcoal the past couple decades. Not exactly black because it hadn’t completely died, and remnants of a glorious past still remained around its North Philadelphia campus, but for far too long, when the words La Salle University and hoops were uttered in the same sentence, students and alums of the school weren’t exactly beaming and shouting out, “Yeah, that’s us. We’re the Explorers. Bring it on.”
Now, after a week unlike any other in the program’s history over the last 60-plus years, they just might.
In beating Atlantic Ten rivals Butler and Virginia Commonwealth last week, the Explorers knocked off ranked opponents in back-to-back games for the first time since 1952. In the interim, they won an NIT title (1952), an NCAA title (1954), finished runner-up in the NCAA tournament (1955), and have had four of the truly legendary college players of all time don their gold and blue: Tom Gola, Michael Brooks, Lionel Simmons and Kenny Durrett.
The first three all won national player of the year honors. Durrett, meanwhile, is considered by many as the best college player in the rich history of Philly hoops – only to have a promising pro career derailed by knee injuries – and the headliner on what was considered the best team in Philly college hoops history, the 1969 Explorers coached by, of all people, Gola. That team was ineligible to compete in the NCAA tournament, but remains legendary even beyond the city’s limits.
In short, La Salle has had a lot to brag about … just not for a long time.
That changed last week, though. In topping Butler, not only did the Explorers get coach John Giannini above .500 during his eight-year tenure at 20th and Olney, they also put themselves on the national map – if only in fleeting fashion. After all, the Bulldogs were without their best player – Rotnei Clarke – and actually a 2.5-point underdog, according to Vegas, and La Salle secured the 54-53 win on a last-second drive by Ramon Galloway.
But they made a statement at VCU, ignoring the label of a 11.5-point ’dog and attacking the 19th-ranked Rams. Galloway scored 31 in the process as the Explorers earned the 69-61 decision.
With all due respect to fellow Big Five member Villanova, which beat the No. 5 (Louisville) and No. 3 (Syracuse) teams in the same span, La Salle’s effort was more worthy of acclaim for one simple reason – it was unexpected. ’Nova has been good, well, for the last 50 or 60 years, pretty much continuously.
The Explorers? Well, they’re now 14-5 heading into Wednesday night’s game against Massachusetts, which is the best mark they’ve had at this point in a season since 1990-91 when they started 14-4.
Between then and now, they’ve been a non-entity on the college basketball scene. But they’ve proven to be worthy of merit this season, also having knocked off ’Nova earlier this season as Giannini’s clear-out, one-on-one offense for his guard-powered squad has proven quite effective.
They’re also no fluke, having won 21 games a year ago. They just hadn’t beaten the likes of Butler, VCU or ’Nova until now, and with that, pride has been restored and recognition is starting to follow.
1-Michigan, 19-1. Best backcourt in the country (Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.) has Wolverines No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in 20 years – and they deserve it. Will be interesting to see if they ultimately can pull off what the hyped-up Fab Five never could: win a national title.
2-Kansas, 18-1. Jayhawks are kinda hard to watch, and they’re not necessarily impressive in victory. But they win as consistently as the sun coming up in the morning.
3-Florida, 16-2. Gators probably deserved this kinda love for a few weeks. They’re certainly easier on the eyes than Kansas, and they shoot it a 49.3-percent clip.
4-Indiana, 18-2. Must be tough for the Hoosiers to be this good, have one of the best players in the country in Cody Zeller, shoot it even better than Florida (50 percent) and still only be second-best in the Big Ten. (Take note: Michigan shoots it better, too – 51 percent … ouch).
5-Syracuse, 18-2. OK, so the Orange are 0-2 this season against Philly’s traditional powers, Villanova and Temple. They’re still the best team in the best conference – yep, even better than Louisville.
Team to watch: Oregon, 18-2. Ducks stand alone and unbeaten atop the Pac-12, having beaten both Arizona and UCLA in the process. They have no stars, just incredible balance.
1-Butler, 17-3. The Bulldogs fell into a trap at La Salle, but they’re fine … and they uncovered another star during senior guard Rotnei Clarke’s absence: freshman Kellen Dunham, who is far more than just a sharpshooter. Kid can play and has some serious cojones.
2-Gonzaga, 19-2. The Zags still should be kicking themselves for losing at Butler with Clarke out, but, alas, it was not to be – so they’ve returned home and gotten healthy against WCC competition. If 7-footer Kelly Olynyk added some hops to his game, he’d be a national player of the year candidate.
3-Wichita State, 19-3. One-two forward punch of Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall make the Shockers very dangerous. Team’s depth makes it very good, even with bad MVC loss to Indiana State Tuesday night.
4-Creighton, 18-3. How Bluejays respond to back-to-back MVC losses will be critical to any seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
5-Saint Mary’s, 17-4. They’re baaaaaack. Gaels just seemed to be waiting in the wings, ready to make their jump back into the national scene. A Valentine’s Day rematch with Gonzaga should be telling.
Team to watch: La Salle.
1-Trey Burke, Michigan, sophomore PG. He’s an electric player who always seems to be under control. That’s quite a combo. His numbers: 17.9 points and 7.1 assists per game (against just 1.9 turnovers).
2-Doug McDermott, Creighton, junior F. He’s a POY choice for many out there, and it’s hard to argue with his success, even with defenses geared to stop him. His numbers, 23.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 56.4 FG.
3-Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s, senior G. The Aussie didn’t start this recent run of success in Morago, Calif., but he has taken it to another level. His numbers: 16.3 ppg, 6.9 apg, 3.0 rpg.
4-Mike Muscala, Bucknell, senior C. The big fella has the 17-4 Bison poised for another NCAA appearance, but he can’t be disappearing like he did at Lehigh. His numbers: 19.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 2.9 bpg.
5-Mason Plumlee, Duke, senior PF. Kinda hard to ignore the guy’s surprising athleticism when ESPN shows every highlight dunk he slams home. His numbers: 17.4 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 1 Coack K bearhug.
Player to watch: Khalif Wyatt, Temple, senior G. Owls, currently 13-6, would be looking at a losing season if not for Wyatt’s old-school game and hard-to-define shot-making skills.