Walking into Tom Gola Arena today, I had the feeling that it was going to be an easy victory for the Explorers. Duquesne has struggled, their lone bright spot being a surprise, one-point victory over Temple a few weeks back. While La Salle was a 17.5 point favorite in Vegas, I have seen enough games here to know that they could put down a stinker.
As the lead neared 30 in the first half, I began to pour over RPI numbers to write this column. In the last seven seasons, La Salle has played a lot of bad teams. In 2006-2007, the Explorers played 13 teams with an RPI of over 200. Most seasons since then, La Salle has played around eight of these games and, even though they may only lose one of them, they Explorers generally have some squeakers.
But not this year. This year, John Giannini’s team is a perfect 5-0 against 200+ RPI teams. Their worst loss is against Central Connecticut State, who sits at #197 at the time of this writing. Other than that blip, La Salle has decimated their struggling opponents by an average of 28.6 points per game.
Check the below table for how they have done in the previous seven seasons:
|Year||Record||RPI||Opp. RPI||Average Margin|
While La Salle is having their best season in two decades, hence a successful record against bad teams, the numbers are staggering. The reason, according to Giannini, is to never underestimate their opponent.
“Never,” Giannini began, responding to my question about preparing for struggling teams. “You always expect the other team to play their best. Whether you are playing the Los Angeles Lakers or the worst team in the country, that is how you keep your focus.”
And La Salle has, opening up leads against Sacred Heart, Siena, Fordham and Duquesne that led to their reserves playing most of the second half. It is not out of the ordinary for a team to fall into a trap game, but for La Salle fans that keep waiting for that shoe to drop on them, they might remain holding their breath.
“Fans might underestimate someone because of their record, but we just look at their best games. When Duquesne is at their best, this team is really dangerous,” Giannini continued, highlighting that his team’s focus and maturity is what should be expected. “There are no games won on paper and the way our guys played the last two days they clearly understand that. If they didn’t understand that, we’d have multiple losses in a row.”
The thing is, La Salle has always lost one of these games. Last year’s five-point loss to Fordham comes to mind. So does a loss in the previous season to Towson, the Tigers’ first victory in over 365 days. It is difficult at times to avoid a bad loss, but La Salle has avoided even a bad close game this year.
“Those players are on full scholarship. They have a great staff. They work hard.They got a good recruiting budget. They play in a good league,” Giannini said about Duquesne’s roster. “We were focused and played well ourselves and had the upper hand. You have to be mature. Beating Duquesne or Rhode Island is a lot harder than it looks. Going out there and taking charging and pressuring up and down the good, it is a little harder than it looks on paper.”
La Salle will never be a team like Duke, who hasn’t lost a game to a 200+ team in decades. They are, however, starting to look like a team that sill not just get through games against bad teams. As their stature grows, their focus seemingly grows with them.
“They know winning in the Atlantic 10 is hard. If you don’t know that, you’re immature,” Giannini finished, rounding out his hypothesis as to why his team has had this success. “I don’t think we should be praised for having a mature team. That is how it is supposed to be. A team that thinks, ‘Well, we should be better than these guys.’ They are going to lose a lot. They are immature and they are not going to be very good.”
The Explorers will not keep shellacking bad teams by 30 points, but their handling of those games on their roster shows a program that has turned the corner. Where they may have fallen, or almost fallen victim to an upset before, Giannini’s players are now staring at an NCAA bid.