|La Salle coach John Giannini has had a good club for many years, but it's never broken through. Is now the time? (AP)|
Of all the big wins for all the teams in college basketball since conference play began, you can make the case no group should be riding higher off two straight victories than La Salle.
Many Philadelphia-area hoops fans could proclaim Villanova's victories over No. 5 Louisville and No. 3 Syracuse trump the Explorers' exploits, but both of those came at home. And given how long it's been since this particular oft-forgotten Big 5 program has beaten two ranked teams in back-to-back games (1952!), I'm willing to say recent events mean more to La Salle's program than Nova's.
First the Explorers Butler'd Butler, eking out a 54-53 win at home over the No. 9 team in the nation on Wednesday, ending a Bulldogs winning streak that dated to before Thanksgiving and most recently was extended by the greatest college basketball game we've seen this season. That earned La Salle a spot on the Philadelphia Daily News' back page for the first time in eons.
Then it followed that huge victory with an even tougher one. Saturday night the Explorers traveled to Richmond and knocked off 19th-ranked VCU, not wilting to the Rams' trademark "Havoc" defense despite trading leads late. VCU's loss came on the heels of an overtime defeat to intra-city rival Richmond, and so La Salle delivered consecutive losses to the Rams, something that's not so common in the Shaka Smart era.
It's possible no other Atlantic 10 team will own Ws over both the A-10's terrific two new inhabitants this season. And to think they came in a four-day span? That's sweet.
For La Salle (14-5, 4-2), this kind of success and positive pub has been a long time coming. Sure, there's still a lot to go, but now this team is in the NCAA tournament conversation, a gabfest that's about to bubble and boil with February less than a week away. The Atlantic 10 is an improved league not only at the top, but in the second and third tier as well. La Salle is symbolic of that.
I talked with Explorers coach Dr. John Giannini after his team's impressive 69-61 victory over the Rams Saturday night. Giannini's in a weird position. Naturally, he's expected this from his team. But here's the other part of it: La Salle hasn't ever truly been bad since he arrived in 2004. It's just sort of been average. In fact, almost the very definition of it. Not including this season, La Salle's record over the past eight seasons under Giannini averages out to 15 wins and 16 losses per year. (Given the resources he has, this is actually impressive.)
"It's natural progression," he said. "We expected to be good this year. We won 21 games last year and made the NIT. We have everyone but one senior back. I understand how people are surprised, but we really are not. We beat Villanova this year, and Villanova just beat two top-five teams."
La Salle's led by Ramon Galloway, a senior guard Giannini calls emotional, most of the time for the positive and betterment of the team. He had 31 in the VCU victory. He's a hell of a lot of fun to watch, one of the most underrated players in the country. Giannini thinks he'll take a few years to get to the NBA, but he's ultimately made for it. Because of players like Galloway and sophomore forward Jerrell Wright, Giannini said his team is built like a lot of Atlantic 10 clubs. And the wins over Butler and VCU were a proud wake-up call to the league from La Salle on behalf of the rest of the conference.
"Us and the Big East have the most good teams in the country," he said, adding an interesting motivating tool and barometer La Salle's used in recent years to up its profile. "One of the ways we look at it is, we focus on the Big 5. If you look, if you're the best team in Philadelphia, you're nationally relevant."
La Salle's not there yet, but I'm writing this post, aren't I? And not only relevant, but tournament-bound. Since 1977 at least one team from Philly has reached the Big Bracket. As it approaches the halfway point of its league schedule, the team will remember last year, when it was 6-2 and in sole possession of first place. It sputtered to 3-5 for the remainder. This team's been close. This year it's a tougher conference. But instead of having a back-loaded slate, this time Giannni's club gets the brunt in the first half.
I enjoy these kinds of stories concerning the old-style programs with great tradition. Do you realize La Salle's won a national title and been to two Final Fours? Or that it's had three national players of the year -- and only Duke and Ohio State have more?
It's a good time for hoops in Philly. Villanova's made a U-turn for the better. Saint Joseph's beat Xavier Saturday and very much remains a factor in the Atlantic 10. But each winter brings a few renaissance stories in this sport that dust off dormant programs. La Salle qualifies, and for the first time in eras is as viable as any other Philadelphia program.
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