Dan Newhart (@danny_newhart)
College basketball players at every level often get to travel around the country on a regular basis during the season for road games. There's lots of pressure to win those games, especially if they are matchups with conference rivals.
Trips for teams during the offseason, however, are a bit more laid-back.
Players get the opportunity not only to compete in less-heavily scrutinized games to keep themselves in shape and conditioned, but also a chance to see a new place they wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to see.
In La Salle’s case, that place was the city of Prague, located in the Czech Republic. The Explorers recently took a week-long trip as a team to the European nation to play in four games in four days against some of Europe’s top competition.
Head coach John Gianinni was extremely happy with what his team took away from the trip. The team went 4-0, beating the likes of Literomerice, the U-20 Czech national team, and the Prague All-Stars White and Red teams.
Gianinni spoke of a more relaxed, laid-back environment on this trip. Of course he wanted his team to win the games, but seeing a new country and the experience as a whole is what he wanted his team to value.
“Traveling to great places during the season is really overrated,” Gianinni said. “There’s so much pressure to win that the kids don’t want to do anything but stay in the hotel and go to practice on a normal road trip. We did not want this to be like an in-season trip at all.”
The team kicked off its off-the-court activities with a trip to one of the oldest landmarks in Europe, the Prague Castle. On their second day they visited city square, and wrapped things up with a boat cruise on the Vltava River.
The team also walked to the Charles Bridge located at the Arch Bridge in the Czech Republic. The bridge, named after King Charles IV, was constructed in 1357 and finished sometime around the 15th century. It served as the only means of transportation from Prague Castle and Old Town until 1841.
“On the last night we took a boat cruise, and the guys saw the city from a completely different vantage point,” Gianinni said. “Between the [Prague] castle and church and Old City and the river cruise, they saw absolutely amazing things. They heard new music, and got great lessons on the history of the city. They easily could’ve made a three credit course out of it.”
Another of Gianinni’s goals on the trip was to get players he feels will have a prominent role this season some in-game experience. It seemed to be a success, as rising sophomores Johnnie Shuler (pictured above), Tony Washington and Yevgen Sakhniuk each had solid first games.
In its first game on May 21, La Salle defeated Literomerice 93-51. Literomerice, a member of the Czech League 2nd Division, finished with a record of 26-2 and a league championship this past season. The Explorers used a stifling defense to hold Literomerice to 29% shooting for the game, and also forced 29 turnovers which they converted to 35 points.
Schuler had a game-high 17 points including three three-pointers. Washington had a double-double of 12 points and 14 boards, and Sakhniuk was five-for-five for 11 points and five rebounds.
Schuler will hope to replace D.J. Peterson in the Explorer line-up, who averaged 23.6 minutes per contest last season. Washington will hope to fill the void left by the departure of last year’s starting forwards Jerrell Wright (12.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Steve Zack (8.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg).
“Those guys were recruited for this year, last year was a developmental year,” Gianinni explained. “This summer was to bridge the gap between practice and playing in games.”
Along with the progress made by those players, Gianinni also saw good things from some returnees. Jordan Price and Rohan Brown each provided a respective spark for the Explorers on the trip.
In the team’s second game, a 94-74 win over the U-20 Czech national team on May 22, Price led all scorers with 30 points, 18 of which came in the opening quarter. The 6-foot-4 junior shooting guard also was 4-of-5 from deep in the opening frame, and his sizzling performance was complemented nicely by Washington’s 21 point, seven-rebound effort.
Brown provided the spark La Salle needed in its third contest against Prague All-Stars (White). He finished with nine points and 10 rebounds, which was in addition to Price’s game-high 21 points.
In its fourth game versus Prague All-Stars (Red), La Salle capped off the trip with an 81-73 victory. Brown, a 6-6 senior forward led the way with 19 points and 9 boards, and Sakhniuk chipped in 16 points and eight boards.
Gianinni and the Explorer’s coaching staff have been using an interesting tactic to get Brown to accept his roles of rebounding and playing hard at the defensive end. He believes Brown has a chance to seize an opportunity for more playing time this season with the departure of key La Salle players.
“We’ve been showing [Brown] old Dennis Rodman tapes and buy into being the toughest defender and rebounder on the court,” Gianinni said. “He has more opportunity now than he did when he was playing behind Jerrell Wright.”
This year’s La Salle squad has some similarities to the team that Gianinni took to the Sweet 16 in 2013. Players like Tyreek Duren and Wright were still young and developing at the time, much like Schuler, Washington, Sakhniuk and Brown on this year’s team.
If the Explorers can use the momentum and game experience they earned during the trip to Prague, Gianinni sees no reason the team can’t make a serious run in the NCAA tournament in the years to come.
“Going on a foreign tour usually helps more than it doesn’t help,” Gianinni said. “Last time we took a trip, we had lost three of our top four scorers from the season before. We took a younger group, and this year again we have guys going into their first and second year in prominent roles, so I do see some analogies there and hopefully we get the same kind of results.”
Photo credit: Tug Haines/City of Basketball Love