Matthew Ryan (@MatthewRyan247)
(Ed. Note: This piece is one of a series of six that the CoBL staff is putting together on how the 2020-21 season went for each of the City 6 and how the future’s shaping up. Links to the rest of the series will go here as they’re published: Drexel | La Salle | Penn | Saint Joseph’s | Temple | Villanova)
In his third season as the head coach, Ashley Howard is trying to rebuild the La Salle program that has struggled over the past 28 years, only making it to March Madness once, where they advanced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen as a 13-seed after needing to win a First Four game to make it to the first round.
Christian Ray (above, last season) was the Explorers' fifth-leading scorer, but the most consistent performer overall, even as his minutes fluctuated during the season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Howard’s squad was 11 games under .500 his first year coaching, but saw a big improvement last year, winning half their games. Going into this season, the Explorers were picked to finish second to last in the Atlantic 10 preseason coaches poll. The year saw some highs and lows, but mostly the latter.
The Explorers lost three of their top six leading scorers from the year prior, including their second-leading scorer Ed Croswell (10.0 ppg), who transferred to Providence, but they had reinforcements. In addition to four incoming freshmen, Indiana transfer and Hatboro-Horsham product Clifton Moore became eligible after sitting out a year due to the transfer rule and Jack Clark returned from a redshirt year due to an injured knee.
Keep reading to check out more about La Salle’s 2020-21 campaign:
Season in Brief
After losing their first three games of the season, La Salle went on a hot streak, winning five of seven and putting their record at .500. One of the five wins came as a massive upset on the road over the defending A-10 regular season champions, Dayton, who was No. 59 in the nation according to hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy’s formulas. With the game tied up, Moore hit the game-winner with just two seconds to go, giving the Explorers a 67-65 lead that went on to be the final.
After that near month stretch of looking like a solid team, the Explorers got a rude awakening, losing 11 of their last 15 games. One of those losses came on the road against Fordham, who finished the season with just two wins.
In that tough stretch, however, La Salle had two more big upset wins; the first on the road against Richmond (KenPom No. 51), 84-78, and the second at home against Saint Louis (No. 39), 82-75.
Howard tinkered with the starting line up a lot, having seven different players start at least 10 games and using 11 different starting lineups. The inconsistency in playing time resulted in mediocre numbers for all, with the top ten scorers averaging between 4.0 and 9.9 points per game.
La Salle had some games postponed or cancelled due to COVID protocols, but they didn’t go on a single COVID-19 pause for the entire year.
How it Ended
The Explorers went 6-11 in conference play, heading into the A-10 conference tournament as a 12 seed and setting up a matchup with 13-seed, Big 5 rival St. Joe’s in the first round. La Salle entered the half with a five-point lead, but the Explorers were unable to hold on in the final 20 minutes, getting bounced 72-66.
La Salle ended the year with a 9-16 overall record (6-11 A-10), and still haven’t won a postseason game of any kind since 2016.
Most Valuable Player: On a team where regular production was tough to come by, Christian Ray was the most consistent, even as his role and minutes fluctuated over the course of the season. In Ray’s senior year at the Haverford School where they went undefeated, he was the team's heart and soul. At 7.5 points per game, Ray was just the fifth-leading scorer, but did so efficiently, shooting 50.3% from the field. The 6-6 Atlantic 10 All-Academic Team guard led his squad with 6.0 rebounds per game and had the second highest Box Plus/Minus — the estimate of points per 100 possessions that a player contributed, with 0.0 being the league average according to Sports-Reference — on the team at 1.7.
Most Improved: The 2020-21 A-10 Sixth Man of the Year, Sherif Kenney averaged 9.6 points per game, improving his scoring from 7.8 points per game the year prior. Kenney improved his scoring average while also boosting his efficiency, seeing an increase in every shooting percentage category.
Sherif Kenney (above, last season) was named the A-10 Sixth Man of the Year and improved his scoring average and shooting percentages from the 2019-20 season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Don’t Forget About: In his first season playing at 20th and Olney, Moore played solid, yielding averages of 6.0 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game, and a team-high 1.4 blocks per game. The 6-10 forward got noticed at Hatboro-Horsham for his ability to stretch the floor, but that hasn’t really been his role at La Salle, only shooting 1.3 threes a game last season. With a lot of minutes available down low next season, the big man has an opportunity to make a name for himself.
Watch Out For: Jhamir Brickus had a really solid freshman season, leading his team in starts with 22, and being named to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team. The 5-11 Coatesville Area (Pa.) graduate was the Explorers’ third-leading scorer, averaging 8.8 points per game on 49.7/32.9/79.4 splits. Brickus was the lead distributor for his squad, dishing out 3.4 assists per game. Despite scoring over 2,000 points in high school, Brikus wasn’t highly recruited, but he proved that he can play at this level.
Maybe Next Year: A 6-4 guard out of Montverde Academy (Fla.), Anwar Gill struggled in some areas his freshman season, having a negative assist to turnover ratio and shooting less than 40% from the floor. Gill did some good things on the floor, too, averaging 2.8 rebounds per game and almost a steal per contest, while scoring 6.1 points a game. There is room to improve for the talented 19 year old, and he showed flashes with outings like a 15-point, 8-rebound effort against Drexel or a 14-point, five-rebound, two-steal outing against UMass.
9.9: La Salle’s leading scorer, Clark, averaged just 9.9 points per game. This is the first time in the 21st century the Explorers’ leading scorer averaged under double figures.
9: Howard’s team finished the year with just nine wins. His squad also had nine different players crack the starting lineup, failing to find much continuity in the starting five throughout the season. Nine is also the number of different players who had the team high in scoring in a game.
A lot is going on for the Explorers in the most packed transfer portal of all time. Their third leading scorer David Beatty (8.8 ppg) along with Ayinde Hikim, Jared Kimbrough, Scott Spencer, and Brandon Stone all entered the portal. Everyone, with the expectation of Stone, played at least 14 minutes per contest, meaning there will be some decent playing time up for grabs next season.
Mamadou Doucoure — a rising fifth year senior center from Rutgers, using his extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA for everyone who played last year — and Josh Nickelberry, a rising junior guard from Louisville, are two new additions coming to 20th and Olney by way of the portal. With not much solidified in terms of playing time next year, both Nickelberry and especially Doucoure, given the lack of depth down low, will have the opportunity to earn some minutes.
With not a lot of consistency in playing time last year, it’s hard to tell what the Explorers have in some players. Seven of La Salle’s eight leading scorers are guards, and the two incoming freshmen, Andrés Marrero — who averaged 21.5 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game, and 2.8 assists per game as a member of the U17 Venezuela national team in 2019 — and Wood’s Daeshon Shepherd, are as well. Moore played solid down low last year, and Doucoure will see some action next season, but some more forward/center depth would behoove Howard’s club.
For a team with no double figure scorer last year, a bucket-getter is important for the Explorers going forward. If that player is on the roster next year, he will have to assert himself in that role; if not, the class of 2022 or next year's transfer portal might be where La Salle goes to find someone who can put in 13-15 points on a consistent basis.