Jordan Price (left) leads the Explorers into the 2015-16 season as the second-highest returning scorer in the A-10. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of CoBL's 2015-16 College Season Preview, which will run from October 2-November 13, the first day of games. For the complete rundown, click here)
2015-16 La Salle Explorers Season Primer
Coach: John Giannini, 12th season (175-170, .507)
Last Year: 17-16 overall, 8-10 Atlantic 10; Lost in Atlantic 10 quarterfinals (Davidson, 67-66)
After making the NCAA Tournament in 2013 and going to the Sweet 16, it’s been two years of mediocrity for the Explorers. Despite having plenty of talent on his roster the last two seasons, Giannini hasn’t quite been able to get his team playing with any consistency during that time; there were games and stretches where they would play up to potential, but just as many times where things just weren’t clicking.
This is bound to be another intriguing year for Giannini, who’s got to replace his starting frontcourt of the last three years while simultaneously managing a roster that only has nine scholarship players due to the presence of three transfers who are all sitting the year out due to NCAA transfer regulations.
Key Losses: PF Jerrell Wright (12.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg), F/C Steve Zack (8.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg), G Khalid Lewis (6.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg), D.J. Peterson (2.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
The starting frontcourt for the last two years, Zack and Wright scored over 2,100 points and pulled in nearly 1,700 rebounds in their respective four-year careers on Olney Avenue. Zack, a 6-11 center from central Pennsylvania, made huge strides in his four years on campus, going from a lead-footed freshman who had his head on a swivel to one of the best all-around big men in the A-10 as a senior, proving himself equally effective on both ends of the floor. Wright, a 6-8 power forward, will always be remembered at La Salle for coming up big in the Explorers’ run to the 2013 Sweet 16 when Zack was hurt, but was far from a dud his upperclassmen years as well.
Lewis and Peterson’s departures aren’t quite as big a deal as the loss of Wright and Zach, but the Explorers will definitely miss their depth in the background. Lewis, who played two seasons as an Explorer after transferring in from Delaware, saw an increased role last year but ultimately was losing playing time to Stukes and Shuler; he’ll play his final year of eligibility this season at Illinois. Peterson, who exhausted his eligibility, made more than 43 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman and sophomore but only hit 26.8 percent as a junior and senior.
New Faces: F Yevgen Sakhniuk (Soph./Ukraine), SG Karl Harris (Fr./De La Salle, Ill.), SF Dusan Majstorovic (Fr./Lee Academy, Maine)
To help fill in some of the 110 minutes per game lost to graduation and transfer, Giannini will no doubt turn to the above three newcomers, who all bring something very different to the table. The obvious choice for the biggest role right away is Sakhniuk, a Ukraine native who sat out last season for an "NCAA-mandated year in residence," meaning he's in school but loses the year of eligibility due to competition he played in back in Europe. A 6-7 combo forward, Sakhniuk is a talented and versatile offensive player who can score with equal ease from inside and out, but though he's practiced for a year, it remains to be seen how he'll handle D-I competition.
Then there are the two true freshmen, Harris and Majstorovic, who give the Explorers even more size on the perimeter. Both stand 6-5 and are hybrid shooting guard/small forwards, with the ability to play either the '2' or '3' though both are more comfortable out on the wing at this point. Harris is a slashing guard who can create his own shot, while Majstorovic, a September addition to the roster, is a muscular native of Serbia who de-committed from Utah State over the summer. Both will have a chance to play, but it'll be their abilities on the defensive end and limiting mistakes that will keep them on the court throughout the season.
Starting Frontcourt: F/C Tony Washington (0.5 ppg, 0.5 rpg), F Rohan Brown (1.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg)
After graduating Wright and Zack, the La Salle frontcourt is a big question mark for the first time in three years, but all hope is not lost. The Explorers coaches like what they have down low this year, even though neither Brown nor Washington have had a chance to prove what they can do with serious minutes at the Division I level.
Brown has certainly been waiting his turn, as the graduate student is in his fifth and final year with the program. Though he's never played more than 10mpg in any of his three seasons, he's expected to be one of the leading rebounders in the program this year, as well as serve as the team's motivational leader. Despite his 6-6, 210-pound frame, Brown has the toughness and motor to battle much bigger forwards on the glass, but he'll need some assistance from the 6-10 Washington, who's not nearly as physically strong as Brown but is a much better shot-blocker.
Starting Backcourt: PG Amar Stukes (5.3 ppg, 1.3 apg), SG Jordan Price (17.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg), SG Cleon Roberts (8.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
Where Giannini can place much more confidence is in his backcourt, which is entering its second year together and has one more to go after this. Stukes, a redshirt sophomore, is hoping his college career goes much like his high school years at La Salle HS--a quiet freshman year, followed by solid sophomore and junior years before he became one of the best guards in the city as a senior back in 2012-13. The Explorers are counting on him to take more of an aggressive approach in the offense this year, especially to take some pressure off his fellow starting guards.
The biggest beneficiary of a more assertive Stukes would be Price, the A-10’s second-leading scorer last year in his first year at La Salle. The former top-75 recruit, now a redshirt junior, began his college career at Auburn before transferring to La Salle prior to the 2013-14 season, and the 6-4 guard certainly lived up to his billing. But his .387 field goal percentage and .340 mark from 3-point range could certainly improve, and his assist-to-turnover ratio (0.74:1) needs to come up as well. His classmate, 6-5 shooting guard Roberts--also a transfer, from Georgia Southern--made more than 40 percent of his 3-point attempts in December and January but was around .200 the rest of the season.
Yevgen Sakhniuk (above) will make his La Salle debut with three years of eligibility remaining. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Bench: F Yevgen Sakhniuk (DNP), PG Johnnie Shuler (2.3 ppg, 0.7 rpg), SG Karl Harris (DNP), SF Dusan Majstorovic
We’ve already covered the three newcomers above, which leaves Shuler as the only member of the team yet to be mentioned. The 5-foot-11 guard from Theodore Roosevelt (Md.) didn’t play big minutes last season as Stukes took the majority of the point guard duties, but he manged to show off a few flashes over the course of the season. Perhaps the quickest player on the team and a solid on-ball defender, Shuler also proved himself to be a solid 3-point shooter (.364) as a freshman, and will certainly be the first guard off the bench this year.Giannini said that he’s planning on playing all nine of his scholarship players during the season, though don’t be surprised if he cuts it down to a 7-man rotation if not everybody’s playing quite up to the level he desires.
Three Games to Watch
1. Hofstra (Dec. 2). One of the favorites in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Pride have plenty of reason to look forward to another game in Philadelphia--head coach Joe Mihalich is from the area, as are seniors Juan’ya Green (Archbishop Carroll) and Ameen Tanksley (Imhotep Charter). That duo also happens to be the best one-two punch in the CAA, with Green (17.1 ppg, 6.5 apg) and Tanksley (16.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) both capable of going off on any given night; add in shooting guard Brian Bernardi (11.8 ppg) and the Pride pack some serious punch.
2. Temple (Jan. 20). The Palestra hosts its first Big 5 doubleheader in more than a decade in January, with Temple/La Salle serving as the opening before Penn and Saint Joseph’s square off. And it comes in the middle of a five-game stretch that will go a long way in determining the Explorers’ season trajectory: vs. Dayton, @ Richmond, @ Rhode Island, Temple, vs. Saint Joseph’s. A win over a somewhat young but very talented group of Owls would be a big boost for La Salle for the last six weeks of the year.
3. Saint Joseph’s (Feb. 13). This game will always be one to watch: the inter-conference rivalry that also happens to be the last Big 5 game of the year. Both matchups will also feature the top two scorers in the Atlantic 10 last year in Price and Saint Joseph’s wing DeAndre Bembry, who led the Hawks in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks as a sophomore and is one of the best pro prospects in the league as well as the city. It’s unlikely this game will be for a city title, but that won’t make a difference to the crowd.
Bonus: @ Rowan, Nov. 28: Okay, so maybe the game itself might not be that interesting, as Division I teams rarely have a difficult time with Division III schools--last year, for instance, Rowan lost 96-48 to Princeton. But this will be an emotional return for John Giannini to a school he led to the D-III national championship back in 1996, and this game will be a celebration of the 20th anniversary of that win; there will be a Division III game before the main event, and many members of that ‘96 championship team will be in attendance.
Three Keys to Success
1. Frontcourt production. As good as La Salle’s scoring guards are, that doesn’t mean the frontcourt can provide only rebounds and defense. Without any scoring presence inside, there won’t be much Price and Roberts can do if they’re the sole focus of opposing defenders, and the Explorers won’t win many games with the two combining to take 40 shots each game. Between Washington, Brown and Sakhniuk, Giannini needs to get at least 20 points and 15 rebounds each game to take pressure off his perimeter and win games in the Atlantic 10.
2. Stukes takes next step. It was as a sophomore at La Salle HS in Wyndmoor that Amar Stukes announced his arrival as a player to watch in the Catholic League, averaging close to 10 ppg after sparse playing time the year prior. He might not have to shoulder that much of a scoring load this year, not with Price and Roberts alongside him. But he certainly needs to improve on his 1.3 assists per game from a year ago, becoming a true facilitator in the offense and getting into the lane to break down opposing defenses. If he doesn’t, Johnnie Shuler will make his case for the starting point guard role.
3. No injuries. With just nine scholarship players, including two freshmen and a few others who will be playing big roles for the first time in their college careers, the last thing Giannini and staff can afford to worry about is depth. Practice depth certainly won’t be an issue thanks to the three transfers sitting this season out, and La Salle’s practices should indeed be fun to watch, but until Pookie Powell, Demetrius Henry and B.J. Johnson are eligible next year, La Salle’s coaches are going to hold their breath anytime anybody hits the floor.