A season of discontent - Part I

Most expected this season to be a step back. The loss of two 1,000 point scorers and five new faces that have gotten 54% of the minutes should add up to a difficult season. Still, Explorer fans are left with wanting more from a team that has showed flashes of what could be an exciting future. A season of discontent will end soon and still many questions still remain.

At the beginning of the season I predicted 16 wins for this team and felt they would end the year 16-15. Obviously my prediction will fall far short once the team packs up and looks forward to next year. I had built in the freshman learning curve, the supposedly soft schedule, and the hopeful evolution of returning leading scorer Darnell Harris as a leader and go-to performer. The growth of Mike St. John, and the possibilities of a healthy Sherman Diaz. The reality is the freshman have taken longer to get acclimated to the college game, the schedule for freshman is difficult no matter who you play, and the returning players have not progressed as had hoped.

Darnell Harris is better in every major statistical category compared to last year. Despite that he has come up barren in some games in which La Salle had a chance to win. When he hits big shots like he did against Penn and Temple, La Salle usually has a very good chance to win the game. Last year Harris had Steven Smith and Jermaine Thomas to take a lot of those shots. On this team he is the main option and #2 is way behind him. When it is time to make a clutch shot most teams know that Harris is the guy that needs to be guarded. The Explorers inability to develop another option has hurt them tremendously in close games. Mike St. John, who has had the responsibility of handling the ball much more on this year's team, has been the brunt of much criticism from fans. Warranted or unwarranted is up to debate. He will most likely triple his assist totals from a year ago but will end up double the turnovers of last year. His shooting percentage is down 10% from the floor. Perhaps the biggest difference is the post defense. St. John is not the same post defender without Steven Smith at his side. Other team's ability to score in the low post has been a major problem. This year's team has given up 40 more two-point baskets compared to last year in one less game. That figure should grow to 65-70 after their next game. That is two to three extra baskets a game for a team that has lost 8 games by 6 points or less. This variance doesn't fall only on Mike St. John. Certainly dribble penetration and not getting back on defense are other major culprits but it does show that finding a low post defender(s) would go a long way in helping this team. Giannini's little use of Sherman Diaz despite shattering last year's shooting percentages has many wondering why Diaz doesn't see more time. Perhaps the fact that his turnovers have almost tripled since last year and mental breakdowns on defense has a lot to do with it. I am one who thinks Sherman deserves more time, but not much more time. He has shown to have mental lapses in games, which has hurt La Salle on several occasions. Yet Diaz is the only reliable outside shooter outside of Harris and could have helped in some games in which La Salle was bogged down on offense. Most notably the St. Louis game inside the last 6 minutes.

The freshmen have thrilled and disappointed. They have kept the Explorers competitive as coach Giannini has eluded to many times. They each have attributes to help this program succeed in the future and yet have flaws in their games that need to be improved if La Salle ever wants to be a major factor in the Atlantic 10. 27 games have painted the initial portraits on this freshmen class as such:

Kimmani Barrett – Steady performer who has gotten better as the season has progressed. Terrific finisher and free throw shooter. Pretty much has produced as advertised. Needs to improve defense and be willing to show a jumper to keep defenders honest.

Rodney Green – After a quick start his game has faded a bit. Perhaps has hit the proverbial freshman wall. Athletic and can finish. Like Barrett he needs to develop a consistent jumper or may never reach the high ceiling he has. Needs tons of work on defense and also must get stronger.

Brian Grimes – Slow start due to injuries but has the possibility of being a nice inside/outside player. Grimes is a little undersized to play typical power forward but has nice moves around the basket. He has some basketball smarts and would benefit from an improving outside shot to make defenders play him outside and give him space to play inside or outside.

Ruben Guillandeux – Has been slow to grasp point guard position and may or may not be the point guard of the future. Really needs maturity to become all he can be. Has become a more consistent shooter. Sky is the limit for him if he matures and works hard on his game.

Yves Mekongo-Mbala – Has all of the tools. Athletic and strong. Very inconsistent season. Looks terrific one play and lost the next. Undersized to play the power forward and not good enough with his shot to play small forward. Classic tweener. Upside is very high though. Needs to work on shooting the basketball.

The Explorers have lost by 8 points or less in 11 of their 17 losses this season. That is not a lot of separation between winning and losing. If they played the season over again starting today this team would have a better record. They dug themselves a big hole with losses to UMBC, Coppin State, Delaware, Niagara, Charlotte, Duquesne, and others. Some of it is to be expected from a very young team but not to the extent that has happened. It is a team on the verge of breaking out but then falling down time after time.

A lot has been said about the coaching job John Giannini has done. He has made mistakes. Poor substitutions, misjudging Guillandeux's ability to play the point and the abilities of some of his players to play defense all have contributed to the season of discontent. However, his ability to bring in talent to a program that has been void of deep talent is remarkable. He deserves the chance to coach his own players. The majority of the minutes go to freshman players who have little upperclassmen help to rely on. That is huge when facing teams with older talent and experience. This is still a program with a serious chance to be a player in the league. It needs more parts and talent. On the other side, Part II we will focus on what help is on the way and what help we still need to become an A-10 contender.

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