Jared Kimbrough (above) and La Salle are now 9-3 a year after opening 0-10. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
What a difference a year makes for La Salle and Ashley Howard.
A year ago, the Explorers’ new head coach was thankful to have picked up his first two career victories, which came on the heels of 10 consecutive losses to open the season. Although the Atlantic 10 slate went better, it still took until March 9 for Howard’s group to hit the double-digit win mark.
This time around, Howard’s got a group entering A-10 play not preparing for a potentially rough few months but instead with hopes as high as anybody else in the league. A 71-59 win over Bucknell at the Palestra on Saturday moved them to 9-3 on the season, continuing an impressive turnaround that’s seen them beat every non-Big 5 team on their schedule thus far.
“I feel like this year, we’re mentally focused,” said sophomore forward Jared Kimbrough, who led four in double figures with a career-high 16 points in Saturday’s win, doing so on his 20th birthday. “We know what we have to do, and we’re going to go out there and just do it.”
Isiah Deas scored 15 points, David Beatty 11 and Ed Croswell 10 for La Salle, which forced 23 Bucknell turnovers, opened a double-digit lead within the game's first seven minutes and led by as many as 22 with seven minutes to play before a too-little, too-late Bison spurt made the final deficit seem more manageable.
The win over the Bison on Saturday afternoon at the Palestra was the final game in the Explorers’ non-conference slate. It’s the best non-league mark since La Salle opened 10-3 back in 2012-13, the year the Explorers made their famous Sweet 16 run. But even though La Salle’s rolling with plenty of momentum, Howard knows that records can be deceiving.
La Salle has risen 72 slots in the KenPom rankings since the beginning of the season, but at No. 147 after Saturday’s win they’re still 10th in the A-10, which is where they were picked preseason. Howard, who was an assistant on both of Villanova’s national championship squads, said his team is only “about 10%” of the way towards playing at the level he wants to get to with the program.
“Because at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to be a championship-caliber team,” Howard explained. “So we could lose 10 games in a row and then win four games in March and I’ll feel like ‘alright, yo, we’re at 100%.’
“But until you get to that point where you’ve prepared yourself to go into March and make a run against the best teams at the right time, at the most important time of the season when the stakes are high, then you’re not there yet. I know, because I’ve been a part of it, I know what it looks like, and we still have a long way to go .”
Five is nice, but six will be tough
The win over Bucknell makes it five in a row for La Salle (9-3), a meaningful number for a program that hasn’t done a ton of winning over the last seven seasons. The Explorers had only won five games in a row five times over the last 14 seasons, accomplishing the feat twice in 2011-12, and again in 2012-13, 2013-14, and last doing it between Jan. 4 –– Jan. 19, 2017, nearly three full seasons ago.
The last time La Salle won six straight was in the 2011-12 season, but they’ll have to really earn it to equal that feat. They open Atlantic 10 play with No. 18 Dayton (10-2), the No. 11 team in the KenPom rankings, who’ve lost only to Kansas (in OT) and to Colorado (in OT), both on neutral courts. This will be, however, Dayton’s first true road game of the season. The game is on Thurs., Jan. 2 at 8:30 PM, and will be broadcast nationally on CBS Sports Network.
“I’m just looking at it as a great opportunity to test ourselves, to see if we can play 40 minutes vs. a quality opponent,” Howard said. “We’ve had three opportunities against Villanova, Temple and Penn, to play against three really good teams, three NCAA tournament-caliber teams, and in each of those games, those teams have had spurts in those games that have put us out of the game. That can’t happen against Dayton, and Dayton’s a team that they can do that to you.”
The Flyers are led by sophomore forward Obi Toppin (18.8 ppg/7.9 rpg), a matchup problem at 6-9, with the ability to score inside and out. Six different Dayton players average more than 9.5 ppg, and they’re the No. 3 most efficient offensive team in the country, shooting 39.6% from deep.
But that could play into La Salle’s strengths, because...
Scott Spencer (above) has been a key perimeter defender for La Salle this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Perimeter defense making a huge difference
Count Bucknell head coach Nate Davis among those who’re plenty convinced La Salle has turned the corner from a year ago. Especially on the defensive end.
Last December –– Dec. 4, to be exact –– the Bison made the trip down to Philadelphia and dropped 91 points on the Explorers, committing 19 turnovers but shooting nearly 58% from the floor, including 11-of-24 (45.8%) from 3-point range. They weren’t nearly successful this time around, hitting at a 35.3% clip overall and only 5-of-19 (26.3%) on 3-point attempts.
“When you watched them a year ago, you could see there wasn’t buy-in from everybody,” Bucknell’s fifth-year head coach said. “When you watch them now, they’re playing together and there’s a buy-in of what they’re doing, they’re playing hard
The Bison became the latest team to struggle from deep against a La Salle squad that entered play 21st in Division I in defensive 3-point percentage (27.2%). That’s by far the biggest reason why, according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, La Salle’s defensive efficiency jumped from 189th in the country last year (1.05 points per possession) to 87th this year (.954 ppp) as of this writing.
Outside of Villanova, which went 6-of-16 (37.5%) from deep in their win over La Salle, no other Explorers’ opponent has made more than one-third of their triples. Eight of their 12 opponents have made 30.0% or worse.
Howard chalked the biggest reason up to a change in personnel.
“Last year, we weren’t as long and versatile, this year we have more length and versatility on the perimeter, and I just think that one area has really helped us in terms of our [defensive] 3-point field goal percentage,” he said. “Scott Spencer’s the one guy, Christian Ray is another guy; Sherif Kenney, Brandon Stone, when he’s playing, Jared [Kimbrough], those are the guys in particular.”
Andrew Funk (above) had 10 points and eight rebounds against La Salle. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Funk, Newman bringing Philly flavor to Bucknell
Though Lewisburg, Pa. is only about a three-hour drive from Philadelphia, if not less, the Bison haven’t always had a Philadelphia presence. Four years ago, the last time Bucknell made it to the NCAA Tournament, there wasn’t a single player from Southeastern Pennsylvania on the roster, though St. Joe’s Prep grad and current SJU assistant John Griffin III was an assistant coach.
But this year’s Bison have two Philly-area products in the typical starting lineup, though one of them came off the bench as Davis made an adjustment from his typical two-big lineup to deal with La Salle’s smaller, perimeter-oriented attack. Andrew Funk, a sophomore out of Archbishop Wood, and Paul Newman, a junior out of Roman Catholic, are both seeing major minutes on a regular basis for the first times in their respective college careers, and while they’re taking their lumps along the way for a 4-9 squad, they’re growing on the job.
Through 13 games, Funk, a 6-4 off-guard, is averaging 10.3 ppg and 4.1 rpg, shooting 31.3% from 3-point range. Newman, a 6-9 post player who did a post-grad year at St. Andrew’s (R.I.) following his 2016 graduation from Roman, is averaging 5.4 ppg and 6.7 rpg in 10 games (nine starts), missing three with a concussion.
“They’ve been great players, I’m really excited about their prospects,” Davis said. “I think like any young guys, they have their ups and downs, but I think they’re going to help us be successful.”
Next year, the Bison will add a third area product. Coatesville native Deuce Turner, a senior guard at Malvern Prep, is one of two players already signed to play at Bucknell for next fall. A 6-3 scoring guard, Turner is already Malvern Prep’s all-time leading scorer, and is on his way to 2,000 points and the Inter-Ac scoring crown. He also holds the Malvern scoring record (48 points), and was fresh off a 34-point outing in the Play-by-Play Classics event the night before against a loaded Rutgers Prep squad.
“I think he’s got a chance to come in and compete to play right away,” Davis said. “He’s got a different dynamic, he can really score the ball at all three levels. He’s a much better passer I think than he gets credit for at times, you watch him use ball screens and stuff, he can pick guys apart.”