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Howard hoping La Salle takes big step forward in Year Three

10/26/2020, 9:15am EDT
By Josh Verlin

Howard (above) guided La Salle to a .500 season in his second year as the Explorers' head coach. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

La Salle celebrated Ashley Howard’s April 2018 arrival with much fanfare, as would be expected for a program that had just landed a rising star of a coach fresh off winning a national championship. 

Two seasons have not been enough to properly gauge the Howard era, but Year Three should be a significant indicator as to the former Villanova associate head coach’s ability to get the Explorers back to the top of the Atlantic 10. 

The roster has fully transitioned from the John Giannini era, though it’s still a fairly young group. Howard’s pieces are in place. Now he’s got to develop his underclassman core into a winning program, to try and get the Explorers into their own version of the Wildcat mindset: fully bought-in, player-led, and defense-focused, with an unselfish style of play.

“I think we have really good leadership in Year Three,” Howard said by phone. “You have four guys in particular who have really come back and assumed leadership roles in the program, and that’s David Beatty, Scott Spencer, Jared Kimbrough and Christian Ray

“Dave and Christian I say are tied for just the hardest-working guys on our team, and those guys have just come back looking like La Salle basketball players and leading the way we want our guys to lead: by example, and vocally, and all those things.”

They’re certainly the quartet who should be in leadership positions:

  • Beatty is a senior and Philadelphia native, an Imhotep Charter grad who also played at high-level high school programs in Archbishop Carroll and St. Benedict’s (N.J.). He was the team’s leading scorer a year ago (10.7 ppg), and finally looked like the talented lead guard he was in high school. Averaged 12.3 ppg and shot 37.3% from 3-point range in the seasons’ final 13 games.

  • Spencer is the teams’ elder statesman, a fifth-year senior who spent his first two years at Clemson; he also reclassified in high school, giving him an extra year of experience under his belt. The 6-6 fit right during his first of on-court eligibility with the Explorers, averaging 8.9 ppg and 3.4 rpg while leading the Atlantic 10 conference in 3-point shooting (43.8%). 

  • Kimbrough, the team’s only true junior on scholarship, has already racked up as many minutes in his first two seasons (931) as Spencer does in his college career (939), with 20 starts out of 53 games played. The 6-8 forward from Neptune (N.J.) was mostly the backup to Ed Croswell last season, but with Croswell now at Providence, Kimbrough will be counted on to improve upon his numbers (4.4 ppg/2.7 rpg). 

  • The only underclassman of the group, Ray has been noted for his leadership skills and work ethic since his early years of high school at Octorara, even before he transferred to The Haverford School and led them to Inter-Ac and PAISAA championships. As a freshman, the 6-6 guard/forward averaged 4.5 ppg and 5.0 rpg, starting eight of the last nine games and playing 20-plus minutes 19 times.

Spencer (above) proved to be one of the top shooters in the A-10 in his first year with La Salle. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Those four will be responsible for leading a group hoping to build off a 15-15 (6-12 A-10) season, the seventh in a row the Explorers have finished at .500 or worse in league play. Though the 2019-20 Explorers won five more games overall than Howard’s first La Salle squad, they finished two games worse in league play.

That task got a little tougher this offseason with the transfer of Croswell, who averaged 10.4 ppg and 7.6 rpg in 26 games before sitting out the last couple weeks of the season following his decision to transfer. The 6-8 Philadelphia native and St. Joe’s Prep product had become one of the top young forwards in the A-10 during his two years at La Salle, and averaged more than twice as many rebounds as everybody else on the team last year besides Ray. The Explorers also have to replace their third-leading scorer, IsIah Deas, who averaged 9.9 ppg in his final year of collegiate eligibility. 

But Howard is hoping he’s got a few aces in the pocket to make up for it., including a few local products who haven’t played much the last few years but look ready to get back into featured roles on the court.

“The two guys that I would say that have stood out are Jack [Clark] and Clifton [Moore],” Howard said. “Both of those guys, they’ll make significant contributions to the team this year.”

Clark, a Cheltenham graduate, made an early return from a high school ACL injury as a La Salle freshman in 2018-19, averaging 10.6 ppg and hitting 41.0% from 3-point range in a nine-game run, then went back to the sidelines due to injury. That ACL, which didn’t heal right the first time around, ultimately needed another surgery that kept Clark out the entire 2019-20 season.

Now all of 6-foot-8, if Clark is healthy and able to produce at the level he flashed two years ago, he’s a real weapon for the Explorers.

“Scott Spencer led the league in 3-point FG% last year, and Jack, if Jack isn’t No. 1 on our team, he’s 1A in terms of being able to shoot the ball, him and Scott have really really shot the ball well,” Howard said.

Moore, a couple inches taller than Clark at 6-10, has so far been more potential than production. The Hatboro-Horsham grad drew a lot of high-major attention for his combination of size and shooting ability in high school, but only played sparingly in 24 games in two years at Indiana, averaging 4.3 minutes and a single point per contest.

Moore isn’t the only stretch-big the Explorers have; sophomore Brandon Stone (6-11, 200 lbs) averaged 3.0 ppg in 10.5 mpg last year. Freshman center Tegra Izay (6-10, 235), more of an interior presence out of Archbishop Carroll (D.C.), rounds out the team’s big men.

Shoring up the backcourt include sophomores Sherif Kenney (7.8 ppg/2.3 rpg) and Ayinde Hikim (6.1 ppg/3.4 apg), who split duties at point guard last year but both shot around 26% from 3-point range.

That’s before mentioning the three other freshmen alongside Izay on the roster: Coatesville’s Jhamir Brickus, a 5-11 guard and 2,000-point scorer; Derrius Ward, a 6-6 guard who went from Philly’s Sankofa Freedom up to St. Thomas More (Conn.) and is expected to redshirt this season; and Anwar Gill, a 6-4 guard out of Washington (D.C.) who most recently went to Montverde (Fl.).

“We have a lot of bodies, we have great depth this year, if you look at our team that’s the one thing you see,” Howard said. “Being able to play with unbelievable pressure on offense and apply pressure on defense, those are the things that we want to do this year.”

“Anwar Gill, he’s the one guy who just looks like he’s college-ready right now: his body’s in shape, sharp. I know for a fact that Anwar’s been working out while he was home in DC and he’s really come back looking like he’s going to be able to make an impact on our team this year. 

“Ayinde Hikim, another guy who’s come back looking much improved shooting the ball better, you can tell he’s been working on his shot during this time off [...] Brandon Stone, he looks like he’s in good shape, he put on some weight since he’s been home, he’s in good condition, shooting the ball well.”

Howard said he was hoping the COVID summer might have been good for his squad, his players able to take some time off and rest their bodies, then work on their shooting, their skills, their bodies. 

There’s no doubt that he’s got the pieces on the roster necessary to compete: there’s size, there’s shooting, there’s athleticism, there’s talent, there’s toughness. There isn’t a ton of experience, but there’s no dearth of it, either.

It’s been eight years since La Salle’s Sweet 16 run that seemed to re-energize the program, a nation-catching moment that ended up being more of a flash in the pan than a sign of things to come. Since then, the college basketball spotlight has largely avoided 20th and Olney, La Salle suffering along with the other non-Villanova Big 5 teams through some rough years.

This could be the light at the end of the tunnel. And then we’ll know if that fanfare was worth it.

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