By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS)— These last two weeks, La Salle coach John Giannini has spent more than a few occasions hinting, cajoling and just flat out reminding people, in and outside of Philadelphia, that the Explorers are a pretty good basketball team. They were before the NCAA Tournament began.
It just took last week and the “Southwest Philly Floater” to slap the country around and get on board with what Giannini and his small, talented team already knew.
Now comes another test for La Salle, the West regional No. 13 seed, Thursday 10:15 EST at the Los Angeles’Staples Center in the Sweet 16 round against No. 9 seed Wichita State, which has also done a few things not many expected in this topsy-turvy tournament, like unseating West regional No. 1 Gonzaga.
About La Salle (24-9):
Along with Florida Gulf Coast, the Explorers have turned into the darlings of the tournament. Unlike the Eagles, La Salle has a strong possibility of reaching the Elite Eight. Florida Gulf Coast will have to wrestle mighty No. 3 seed Florida and appears the Florida Gulf Coast’s high wire act is about to get yanked.
The Explorers, meanwhile, are riding a three-game winning streak. They won their first two tournament games virtually without Tyreek Duren, their top player, not controlling the game the way he’s capable. Duren’s ability rose at crucial moments in the Explorers’ victory over Mississippi and he’s bound to have another strong game against Wichita State.
La Salle is shooting 51.6-percent during the tournament, 43.6-percent from three-point range.
Ramon Galloway has led way, averaging 21.3 points and 4.0 rebounds a game. But this tournament has also served as a coming out party for junior guard Tyrone Garland, whose driving layup with 2.5 seconds gave the Explorers the Mississippi victory and sent the playground phrase “Southwest Philly Floater” viral. Garland is scoring 13.7 points a game coming off the bench, Jerrell Wright has been impressive, averaging 14 points and Sam Mills is dropping 11 a game.
As a team, the Explorers are averaging 72.5 points a game, though are also giving up 66.2.
About Wichita State (28-8):
The Shockers are favored, but that doesn’t mean anything. They’ve lived by the trey. They blew out Pitt in their first game by 73-55 and reached the Sweet 16 with their surprising 76-70 upset over Gonzaga.
The Shockers have done it shooting 44.4-percent from the floor and were incredibly impressive from beyond the arc against Gonzaga, making 14 of 28.
Junior Cleanthony Early, a 6-8 forward, has led the way averaging 18.2 points and seven rebounds in the Shockers’ tournament victories. After him, it gets a little iffy. Malcolm Armstead blew up for 22 against Pitt, but shot 2 of 9 (1-6 from 3-point range) against Gonzaga. Ron Brown was 0-for-5 against Pitt, and Carl Hall has been steady, going 3-for-6 in each of the Shockers tournament wins.
What could happen:
La Salle gets off to another great start, as the Explorers did against Kansas State, and holds off a late charge by the Shockers. Duren is the key. If he plays the way he’s capable of playing, the way he has this whole season, and as he did against Mississippi, the Explorers will be in good shape.
The fear is Wichita State’s size. Hall and Early are each 6-8. Senior center Ehimen Orukpe is a 7-footer who apparently does little but put his arms up. But the Shockers do have more imposing size that can cut the Explorers’ drives. There is a chance Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall slows the game down, opts to go in a different direction than what’s worked so far, and tries pounding away at La Salle inside.
Here’s thinking Marshall doesn’t. La Salle wins another thriller, 83-82.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.