How La Salle turned its program around

How La Salle turned its program around

March 19, 2013, 3:30 pm
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DAYTON, Ohio -- To understand how far they’ve come, you have to know where they’ve been. Before you can appreciate the current renaissance, you must first consider the dark days that nearly crippled an already broken and limping program.

On Wednesday evening -- on the school’s 150th anniversary -- La Salle will celebrate its first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years. The Explorers will face Boise State in a first-round/play-in game (see story). That’s fine with them. Getting in, being included, was an important part of a story they were desperate to tell. It is, so far, the dramatic high point to a tale that was previously gloomy and twisted.

“To me, it means everything,” junior guard Tyreek Duren said. “ We’ve been through so much since freshman year. A lot of people transferred. A lot of drama on the team. I give a lot of props up to ‘G’ because he got the program back up to where it should be. He recruited people. The program did a whole [180] – in the two years from my freshman year to now. It’s a whole different team. It’s great. It’s crazy thinking about it.”

“G” is head coach John Giannini. This is his ninth year at La Salle. Unlike this season, many of those years were turbulent and tough.

When Giannini inherited the program, the glory of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had long ago faded. The Explorers were an Atlantic 10 afterthought, and they had slipped to the bottom of the Big 5. (All the other city schools made at least one NCAA tournament appearance between 1993 and 2012.)

What was worse -- what was much, much worse -- was the toxic atmosphere and tarnished school image that resulted from rape allegations being levied against three players for two separate incidents in the summer of 2004. Charges against English-born Dzaflo Larkai were dropped when his accuser refused to testify. Two other players -- Gary Neal and Mike Cleaves -- were found not guilty in November of 2005.

The scandal and subsequent trial led to accusations that former men’s basketball coach Billy Hahn and women’s basketball coach John Miller engaged in an attempted cover-up. (One of the alleged incidents involved a female basketball player who was reportedly asked to keep quiet when she informed Hahn and Miller about what happened.) Hahn and Miller were eventually placed on unpaid administrative leave and forced to resign.

That’s the program Giannini took over. He landed on a campus that was fractured and disgraced, and he was asked to not only help heal the situation but also remake a basketball team that had done almost nothing since Speedy Morris was the head coach so many years earlier.

In previous stops, Giannini went 110-12 at Rowan College and won a Division III championship. He also left the University of Maine with the best winning percentage of any coach in Black Bears history. Performing at those schools wasn’t easy, but it was decidedly less taxing than the task he faced at La Salle.

“I think building a program is underestimated wherever you are,” Giannini said. “It’s hard to sell people on a vision that you could be good because they can’t see it. It’s easier to say ‘we are good.’ For example, right now, in recruiting, we can tell people, ‘if you come here, we’re one of the best teams in the A-10. We’re as good as anyone in Philadelphia. You can come here and we play through our guards.’ People can see what you’re talking about. But when you don’t have that advantage, it’s hard.”

Just two of Giannini’s first six years produced winning seasons. And as recently as 2009-10 and 2010-11, La Salle had back-to-back losing campaigns. As Duren noted, several players transferred during that period, including highly-touted local recruit Aaric Murray, who never realized his potential at La Salle and reportedly clashed with teammates and coaches before fleeing 20th and Olney for West Virginia.

If the program’s foundation had been brittle and cracked, it suddenly appeared like it would collapse completely. But while several players left, other important pieces like Duren and Sam Mills remained. And one other arrived: Ramon Galloway. The Philadelphia native transferred from South Carolina to La Salle in 2011 and immediately became one of the best players in the city and the conference. Galloway (who was named first-team Atlantic 10 this year), Duren and Mills gave Giannini a dangerous, guard-heavy offense that instantly became one of the most-skilled backcourts La Salle has seen in decades.

Together, the trio helped the Explorers go 21-12 last season and reach the NIT -- the first postseason appearance of any kind for La Salle in 20 years. When four of their five starters returned this season, the Explorers were primed for their best year in a while. That’s what happened.

For the second straight season, La Salle (21-9) posted at least 20 wins -- the first time the school has done that since 1988-89 and 1989-90 -- and it sent a school record for Atlantic 10 victories with 11. While all of that was positive and encouraging, the narrative would have felt incomplete without an NCAA tournament bid.

Selection Sunday was tense for the Explorers. They had an excellent season, but they were coming off their first back-to-back losses of the year after falling to St. Louis and Butler. And so they crammed into a tiny room in Tom Gola Arena and turned on the TV and hoped to hear the school’s name called. It almost didn’t happen. The Selection Committee later revealed that La Salle was the second-to-last school to make the field, and the Explorers didn’t learn that they were in the tournament until the final region was announced. When La Salle’s name popped up on the TV screen, the Explorers leapt up from their chairs, and the previously hushed room grew loud as the players screamed and congratulated each other.

It was a big moment -- an important moment, Giannini said, for “alums and former players,” “current kids” and “coaches.”

“It’s infinitely harder,” Giannini said about making the tournament, “than the average fan would realize.”

He’s right. He would know.