Struggling La Salle just floating along

Posted: March 07, 2014

THE SOUTHWEST Philly Floater has drifted into memory.

The player who made that famous shot against Ole Miss, Tyrone Garland, is part of a senior-heavy La Salle team limping to the finish of a startlingly empty season.

It is so empty because the player who made La Salle legitimate, 6-3 scorer Ramon Galloway, now is a pro in Germany.

The Explorers were expected to be among the elite in the Atlantic 10 Conference, but they failed to replace Galloway's defense, his offense and his energy.

"The amazing thing to me is, one player can make that big of a difference," said Dr. John Giannini, who became their head coach after a fast rise from Rowan through Maine to La Salle. "I'm stunned by it . . . I've coached for a long time. I've lost my leading scorer off good teams, and gotten better.

"He was the perfect player for that team, and everyone fit together perfectly."

Giannini spoke Wednesday afternoon, and he spoke with typical candor.

It's not as if La Salle is awful, or even regressive. The Explorers are, in contradiction to their nickname, stagnant.

They are undersized, tenacious, disciplined, but, largely, ordinary.

Too ordinary to approach the preseason prediction by A-10 coaches and media that they would finish No. 3 in the conference. Too ordinary to hope for anything more than a record at or above .500 - which, to be fair, would be a fine year to be disappointed with.

"Last year we raised the ceiling in terms of what a great year could mean," Giannini said. "Now, we can redefine what a bad year is. We can raise the floor."

Giannini sat in his office in Tom Gola Arena on Wednesday afternoon. His team was 14-14, 6-8 in the conference. At one point it lost eight of nine games, but it surged to a comeback, payback win over a mediocre bunch from St. Bonaventure and followed with a win at last-place Fordham.

George Mason was scheduled to visit next, a team with 10 wins, just three in the A-10. La Salle then would play its regular-season finale Sunday at Saint Joseph's, this year's feel-good team in the city. It would end the toughest regular-season schedule in school history: La Salle's strength of schedule hovers from 19th to 35th in the country, depending on the time of year and the source.

"If a bad year is a .500 record with a top-20 schedule? That's something I could sleep with," Giannini said. "We want to redefine what, for us, 'struggling' is."

That definition became clearer last night.

George Mason scored the first six points of the second half; Marko Gujanicic converted a timely follow shot with 21 seconds to play; and Mason won, 59-57.

It was typical La Salle basketball: great effort, poor shooting, hesitant play.

Typical this season, that is.

So much of it hinged on what was lost . . . and what never developed.

Garland, a Philly native weaned on brutal playground ball, sank the floating layup that pushed La Salle into the Round of 16. He called it the Southwest Philly Floater, and he was celebrated, and he was perfect for the role: charismatic, articulate and wonderfully photogenic, his ferocious stare and braided hair offset by the brightest smile in the Big 5.

Like Galloway, who transferred back to Philadelphia from South Carolina, Garland left Virginia Tech and came home to finish his career.

Transfer rules gave Garland only half of last season, almost all of it off the bench. He was expected to improve his game in order to replace some of what was lost when Galloway left; some of the primal edge, some of the infectious energy.

Garland is shooting 33.6 percent; just 23.4 percent from three-point range. He hit another Floater last night that gave La Salle a lead with 44 seconds left, but he somehow couldn't get open in the final seconds to attempt an encore.

"In defense of Tyrone Garland, he has only played [real minutes] in 55 college basketball games," Giannini said. "And he plays like it."

By comparison, point guard Tyreek Duren started in his 101st consecutive game, and remains a polished point guard. Similarly, role players Sam Mills and D.J. Peterson understand their jobs. All four are seniors.

Junior forward Jerrell Wright, a preseason A-10 third-team all-conference pick, has failed to move forward. Junior center Steve Zack, who missed the late-season fun last year with a foot injury, plays considerably smaller than his listed 6-11 height.

So, it lies with the senior guards, and they have been hindered.

New hand-check rules dulled the teeth of La Salle's ferocious perimeter defense. The rules also forced teams to pressure La Salle less on the perimeter.

That should have been good news, since the Explorers bombed their way into the Sweet 16 last spring. They made 37.7 percent of their threes, and their three most frequent firers hit almost 40 percent; Galloway, 41.2 percent.

They have made 32.7 percent this season.

They average 5.5 steals, down 1.2 from last season. Galloway led the team with 1.9.

"The way we played defense last year, before the rules changes, fed our energy," Giannini said, and paused, and sighed. "But Ramon fed our energy, too. He's like a human electron."

There is time left to create a spark.

La Salle lost to first-place St. Louis by two points a month ago, one of the five one-possession games they lost this season. They were 7-1 in those games last year.

"That is not by accident. That is not by luck," Giannini said last night. "You can't lose focus . . . We need to have fewer lapses."

Still, Duren is fully recovered from a debilitating bout with plantar fasciitis that kept him up nights. Last night notwithstanding, the Explorers can make noise in Brooklyn at next week's A-10 Tournament.

"We're very close," Giannini said.

"We're playing well," Duren said. "We can carry this over to the conference tournament with a good head of steam. We've definitely got momentum. I think we're going into the tournament strong."

Confident, perhaps.

But strong?

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch


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