How La Salle broke its NCAA drought

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER La Salle coach John Giannini and players react to news of Explorers' first NCAA bid since 1992.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER La Salle coach John Giannini and players react to news of Explorers' first NCAA bid since 1992.
Posted: March 18, 2013

WHEN John Giannini was coaching at Maine, he watched Saint Joseph's, circa 2002-04, smash bigger opponents with its three- and sometimes four-guard lineup. When he got to La Salle in the summer of 2004, he got an up-close look at Villanova's four-guard lineup from 2004-06 that routinely trashed teams.

"We built the program three times," Giannini said. "The first time with the players that we were fortunate to inherit. Then, we went with a big, long interchangeable team and it worked. We went from 13th to seventh to fifth and then we had that class get the injuries. When it came time to get another core group, we thought it was very difficult teaching guys new things. When you're interchangeable, it means everyone knows everything and you have to teach a whole lot.

"Villanova and St. Joe's influenced us a lot. We just saw how hard it was to stop teams with multiple playmakers and multiple shotmakers. The thing we liked about it the most was how clear the role definition was on those teams. We recruited with guard play and role definition in mind."

La Salle got Tyreek Duren and Sam Mills in the class of 2010. They were the runner-up for Tyrone Garland that same year. They got Ramon Galloway in the summer of 2011 when he decided to transfer from South Carolina. Then, Garland decided to transfer from Virginia Tech after the 2011 fall semester.

With Duren, Mills and Galloway, La Salle went 21-13 last season and made its first postseason in 20 years, losing in the first round of the NIT. Give those three another season together, add Garland in December and La Salle is 21-9 heading into its first NCAA Tournament in 21 years. The Explorers will play Boise State at 9:10 p.m. Wednesday in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio. The winner will play Kansas State on Friday in Kansas City.

None of the Explorers' success is by coincidence. It was by design.

"We certainly want to stay on that path," Giannini said. "I think it works for us. I think it works for a lot of people."

Duren is the classic point guard, doing whatever it takes to win the game. Galloway is an explosive scorer with in-the-gym range who is more than willing to pass and defend. Mills is another excellent defender who does not make mistakes with the ball. Garland, who has never seen a man he does not think he can beat off the dribble, puts tremendous pressure on defenses because he is constantly attacking.

Unless there is major foul trouble, three of them are always on the court. It is often four.

La Salle will be small, but when slower has to cover quicker, slower rarely wins. SJU, with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, proved it. So did Villanova with Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry. La Salle is proving it now.

When La Salle was really good during the Lionel Simmons era, the coaching staff owned the city. Simmons, Bobby Johnson, Doug Overton and Randy Woods all came out of the Public League, as do Garland and Galloway now. Duren played in the Catholic League. Mills is from Florida.

You go wherever you can get guards, but it is even better when they are from the city. La Salle had four consecutive 20-win seasons with Simmons, the L-Train. With everybody but Galloway back next season, a third consecutive 20-win season seems likely.

First, however, the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

La Salle's guards are not only good, they are confident.

Mills is the quiet one.

"I have confidence in my whole team, but especially the guards," he said.

He knows the drill when La Salle starts to isolate defenders.

"You can just see the fear in their eyes," Mills said.

Garland is the confident one.

"It's like playing out on the playground with your best friend," he said. "It kind of seems like it's an all-star team or compare it to Villanova when they had their guards. It's just fun playing out there."

Galloway is the talkative one.

"We have set plays and we have plays that get us quick buckets," he said. "When we spread the floor, we have all guards who can create for each other and create their own shot."

The coach gives his players freedom. That freedom, Galloway said, is why La Salle has won and will win.

"I feel like we can play with anybody," Galloway said. "When we play with our heart and we play with will and play with pride . . . There are a lot of teams that have great talent, but there are not a lot of teams that have great talents. They don't have four real good guards."

Galloway and Duren, especially, are at the stage where they can anticipate what the other is going to do before he does it.

"It's the greatest thing ever," Galloway said of playing with Duren. "It makes the game easier. He gets me easy shots."

The feeling goes both ways.

"I think we've got one of the best one-two punches in the country," Duren said. "I love playing with him."

Duren is the cerebral one.

He is not quite old enough to remember specifics about the SJU teams, but he has spent his last two summers training with Nelson. He vividly remembers the Villanova teams.

"They were kind of in a sense just like us," he said of St. Joe's. "They played pretty much all guards. They didn't really have a dominant big man. They just played good defense. I really remember the Villanova teams. That's when I really started watching college basketball. That was really the only team I watched just because they were so exciting to watch, the way they spread the floor out. You could picture yourself playing with them pretty much because you were a guard."

It is, Duren said, "the same picture pretty much."

"On offense, it is going to be hard for them to guard you," Duren said. "On defense, you just got to follow all your principles."

Defenders must feel like they are on an island when La Salle spreads the court. And that is precisely the idea.

"If there was a magic play or a magic offense, everyone would do it," Giannini said.

It is rarely about plays. It is almost always about players making plays.

"The whole thing is being able to make a good decision when you do make a play," Giannini said.

La Salle has players who can finish at the rim and beyond the arc. They have willing passers who want to make defenders commit and then find the man who has worked his way to the open spot.

"It just works," Giannini said. "I was just reading how North Carolina has now played a little bit smaller. I was watching NBA games in the playoffs where people went to four guards at crunch time.

"The most important thing you can have offensively is if the guy with the ball knows what he's doing. And when you have three or four guys who are good with the ball in their hands, it's almost always better for your team."

Trust in his players and how they play has allowed Giannini to coach differently. He does not have to worry about each possession. He can coach more end-of-game situations, two-for-ones if the shot clock is right and definitely defense, the small details that are often the difference between winning and losing.

"When you have to manufacture points and worry about what you're running and look at that long list of plays, it definitely takes a lot of time in practice," Giannini said.

La Salle still has a lot of offensive sets, but "sometimes, our sets get in the way," the coach said. "Our players are better when they are attacking as opposed to when they are worried about running Play 2, 3, 4 or 5."

La Salle is especially difficult to guard when it has a lead in late-game situations. The Explorers can all shoot free throws. They spread the court even more in their version of the four corners, forcing help when the dribbler beats his man, usually making the right play and rarely missing free throws that matter.

"To me, they all look scared because they know this is the toughest part of the game," Duren said of the endgames. "I can't let my man go by me or I'm going to let my team down. Then, they stop me, then they have to stop Ramon . . . We just keep coming at you. It's like, how do you stop it?"

Mostly, you don't.

"Outside of Pete Carril, I don't know one coach who's won because of his offense," Giannini said.

The game is simply not about schemes, especially now when the skill level has gotten so high.

"Every coach who's ever sat on a bench has risen and fallen with his players," Giannini said. "Pete Carril might be my one exception, but I think those Ivy League coaches will tell you he also had his share of all-Ivy League players."

Giannini has his share of all-A-10 players. But he had the vision of a way to play the game. His players believe in the vision.

"When you have a team that is a little more mature and starts talking more like coaches, then you might have an advantage," Giannini said.

That is not an accident either.

"We have put a great emphasis in the last few years on chemistry and character in recruiting, but you still have to get lucky with that," Giannini said. "You never really know, no matter how long you recruit a kid. You really don't know everything about him until you're with him every second of every day the way you are in college."

Now, they know at La Salle. They know what they wanted. They have what they envisioned.