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La Salle hits another peak in up-and-down season

01/23/2021, 11:30pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Jared Kimbrough hold the basketball as another player guards him

Junior Jared Kimbrough (above, in 2019) has been impressive since returning from injury, going 25-of-29 from the floor. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
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To say that La Salle has had an ‘up-and-down’ month wouldn’t be quite as understated as saying that Edmund Hilary went for a ‘brief stroll’ up Mt. Everest. But it certainly paints an incomplete picture.

The Explorers have had a roller-coaster of a season, snapping from some impressive highs to embarrassing lows and right back up again. La Salle hit another peak Saturday afternoon, an 84-78 win at Richmond that once again showed the potential of an intriguing group, albeit one that’s yet to display anything resembling consistency.

First, the good.

La Salle head coach Ashley Howard called it a “tremendous win” for his program, and he’s not wrong. Beating the preseason league favorites on their home floor is a nice notch on the belt, and it comes 25 days after another impressive Atlantic 10 road win at Dayton.

The Explorers held Spiders star guard Jacob Gilyard to five points on 2-of-8 shooting Saturday, forcing the stellar senior to turn it over four times. The rebound battle, a La Salle sticking point this season, went in the victors’ favor, 31-26. The Explorers hit 19-of-24 from the line, almost keeping pace with Richmond’s perfect afternoon on as many attempts.

Six different Explorers hit double figures, led by sophomore Sherif Kenney (17); Jared Kimbrough (12), Christian Ray (11), Scott Spencer (10), Jack Clark (10) and Jhamir Brickus (10) all joined him. 

Howard also called it “a great balanced team effort,” and there’s certainly no disputing that. Following up on a 90-83 win against crosstown rival St. Joe’s on Monday, it’s certainly a move in the right direction.

But... 

The three games between Jan. 9 and Jan. 16 were as ugly as the Richmond win was impressive. Three losses: by 16 at UMass, by 33 at George Mason, by 22 at home to Davidson. All saw La Salle fall behind early and never make a real push, combined with significant rebounding deficits and poor 3-point shooting. 

Against UMass, La Salle found itself down 31-13 in the game’s first 12 minutes; George Mason matched the exact same advantage 15 minutes into its easy win. Davidson used a 15-2 run around the midpoint of the first half to lead 30-12 around the same point.

“It’s been our energy,” Howard said. “We’ve had games where [...] we come out of the gate and we struggle to score, we struggle to manufacture offense. We miss easy baskets, and then we get down early. And we didn’t muster up the energy in those games to even make those games competitive and put up a fight.”

Even after the last two wins, La Salle is still just 7-8 overall, 4-4 in the A-10. There was another ugly three-game stretch to open the year, including a 17-point loss to St. John’s and 11-point defeat against Saint Peter’s, then a 19-point home loss to UMass to open up league play in December. 

It’s still very much a tough group to figure out. Just like last year, nobody’s averaging in double figures; the top nine all average between 9.1 and 5.6 ppg, with Kenney leading the way after Saturday’s output. All nine have heard their name in the starting lineup, and all have done so multiple times; seven players have started five or more games. 

No matter who starts, Howard has shown no propensity towards any particular mix of players. According to KenPom, La Salle’s most common grouping (Brickus/Beatty/Gill/Clark/Moore) is on the court only 10% of the time. Compare that to Drexel’s typical starting lineup (26%), Villanova’s (20%), Temple’s (18%) and Saint Joseph’s (17.7%), all of whom have one clear group with more court time than the rest.

“The guys who are playing well in practice and the guys who are most connected in practice, those are the guys that we’re making the decision [to go] with [in the starting lineup],” Howard said. “But I think all of our guys understand that everybody’s going to get their opportunity.”

Kimbrough, a junior forward out of Neptune (N.J.), has played his best basketball in a La Salle uniform the last couple games. The lanky 6-foot-8 post had a career-best 24-point, six-rebound outing against St. Joe’s and followed that up with a 12-point, nine-rebound effort against Richmond. He went a combined 17-of-18 from the floor in those two wins, and is 25-of-29 (86.2%) from the floor in six games since returning from a three-game absence due to a shoulder injury.

“Once I came off the shoulder injury I had, I knew what the team needed so I tried to focus on that and be the player this team needs,” Kimbrough said. “Staying in a good mental space, just bringing up the [team’s] positivity.

“Since he came back from injury, he’s been getting extra time with the coaches, working on his game,” Howard said, “and it’s paid great dividends for him.”

Kimbrough’s had an interesting path thus far at La Salle, starting 17 out of 29 games two years ago (5.0 ppg/4.9 rpg), falling out of the starting lineup as Ed Croswell took dominant minutes down low as a sophomore (4.4 ppg/2.7 rpg), and was only averaging 3.1 ppg and 2.5 rpg before his outburst the last pair of games.

But on a team with no clear star and no clear anchor, anybody’s got the chance to seize that opportunity and run with it. 

That’s what remains to be seen about La Salle, whether this any-given-player approach can really work in the long run. Howard’s clearly trying to get his program to think like the Villanova machine he came from, that selfless style of ball that requires a full buy-in and trust that the system will help the players shine rather than the other way around. It’s much easier said than done.

Howard called his team “young” several times after the Richmond game, mentioning their “inexperience” as well, and those excuses will only work for so much longer. By next year, this Explorers rotation will be full of sophomores and juniors with a lot of playing experience, and Howard’s current (third) season will likely be the last where low expectations are understandable, though not internally acceptable. 

In a year when every single team across the country has dealt with some type of COVID issue — whether that’s a pause, a cancellation, delays, or some combination of the three — La Salle has been rather lucky. The Explorers haven’t had a positive test within their program, and have only had one game postponed (Jan. 6 vs. Saint Louis). 

If that holds, they’ll host Rhode Island Wednesday, then travel to VCU (Jan. 30) and St. Joe’s (Feb. 6). Winning all three is a must if the Explorers want to be taken seriously as a threat in the A-10 this year.

“We still have more room for growth,” Howard said. “We didn’t get a spring, we didn’t get a summer. Right now, this is our spring/summer where we’re just continuing to get better. We’re still doing a lot of player development stuff right now. 

“My mindset hasn’t changed because it’s always about getting these guys better, getting these guys to trust each other, and see how far we can go as the year goes on.”


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