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Early priorities key for Howard's transition at La Salle

04/10/2018, 1:45pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Ashley Howard (middle) is flanked by Donnie Carr (L) and Lionel Simmons at his introductory press conference. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Ashley Howard’s introduction as La Salle’s head coach was a celebration worthy of a Philadelphia native taking charge of a Big 5 program, complete with the traditional streamers that rained down from the crowd upon the Monsignor Bonner and Drexel product taking the stage.

“It feels awesome to be a head coach in my hometown here I grew up,” he said afterward. “Representing Philly basketball and the Big 5 is something that has been a dream of mine.”

But once the celebration ended, once Howard had made his way around the Founder’s Hall auditorium, one of the newest buildings at his new home at 20th and Olney, and shook the hands of everyone from La Salle legend Lionel ‘L-Train’ Simmons to grassroots figure Sonny Hill to fellow coaches Fran Dunphy (Temple), Zack Spiker (Drexel) and more, the glamour quickly faded.

There’s plenty of work for Howard to do, and the constantly moving Division I calendar means there’s no time to waste.

No matter that only a week before his introduction to the greater La Salle community, Howard was busy celebrating his second national championship in three years with Villanova, where he’d spent the previous five years as an assistant under Jay Wright.

“Coming off the national championship has hindered my ability to get a good night's rest for a good week,” he cracked. “I’m looking forward to use some of those experiences I got at Villanova and bringing them over here to help build something special here at La Salle

First up for Howard will be to build his coaching staff.

Of the Explorers’ coaches from the last regime, assistant Donnie Carr, director of basketball operations Andrew McGlynn and video coordinator D.J. Peterson were the only three in attendance for Howard’s introduction; it’s possible the new boss could keep all three on, which would leave two assistant coaching spots to be filled. Carr even posed for photos afterward with Howard and Simmons, which would lend itself to the notion that he’s staying.

And the clock is ticking -- less than two weeks from his introductory press conference begin the first of two live recruiting periods that cover the final two weekends in April, with the three major sneaker circuits and several other major AAU tournaments taking place across the country, especially in Dallas (April 19-21) and Indianapolis (April 26-28).

Most coaching staffs will have all four coaches on the road those two weekends; for that to happen, Howard needs to have coaches.

“I think we have a good group of young fellas who are committed to excellence here at La Salle and I can’t wait to get in the gym with them,” Howard said, “but first and foremost I want to get my staff together so we can all start preparing for the future, and getting to know each other, and figuring out how we want to attack this challenge that we have ahead of us.”

There will certainly be increased expectations from inside and out that Howard can get the ball rolling again at a program that -- outside of a Sweet 16 run in 2013 -- hasn’t had too much to cheer about over the last quarter-century.

Over Giannini’s last five seasons, La Salle went 69-88 (.439), with a 38-53 (.418) mark in Atlantic 10 play. The 2011-12 and 2012-13 teams were the only two since 1992 to win 20 games, two of only six Explorers squads with a winning record over that time.

That ‘92 squad was the last of a run of eight NCAA appearances in a 16-year period. So it can be done, despite the fact that the school’s Tom Gola Arena is more of a glorified high school gym with a capacity of about 3,400, despite the fact that the rest of the City 6 and about a dozen Division I programs in a three-hour radius compete for the same pool of high school prospects.

It’s just been a while since the success has been consistent.

“I think this is a good start,” said Simmons, the former two-time All-American and school’s all-time leading scorer (3,217 points) who was a major reason the Explorers made three straight March Madness trips from 1998-90. “I think (Howard) has to get on the road and get some of those good players in here and get them acclimated to the program and to La Salle basketball and I think he’s the right guy for the job, he’s going to do a great job.”

If the coaches are Priority 1, then Priority 1a is the Explorers’ four-man 2018 recruiting class.

Howard said that he’d already spoken to all four prior to his press conference. Only Croswell has said he’ll certainly be going to La Salle, making that declaration before Howard’s hiring and re-affirming it at the Donofrio Classic on Monday night.

Clark, Kimbrough and Osunniyi are still mulling over their decisions. Keeping all four would be a boon to an Explorers squad that’s projected to have at most one senior on the roster next year, giving Howard a young group to build around in his first few seasons.

“We have a really good recruiting class coming in, we want to retain those recruits and then we want to build off of that,” Howard said. “Any time you have an opportunity to have a young team of talented guys, you want to harness it, you want to get those guys excited about being a part of something new.

“And that’s my hope, I hope that those guys want to be a part of it, I hope they want to be an intricate part of building the tradition up from this point forward.”

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