If there is anyone in the nation unhappy about Florida Gulf Coast’s titillating run through the 2013 NCAA tournament, it should be the players and coaches of the La Salle Explorers.
The lead up to the Sweet 16 has been all FGCU all the time—and rightfully so. This is the first time a No. 15 seed has advanced past the first weekend, so it’s only right to bask in the historical significance.
However, the hoopla surrounding Andy Enfield and Co. has seemingly overshadowed La Salle’s almost equally historic run.
Becoming only the second “First Four” team to ever advance past the round of 64, the Explorers head into their Sweet 16 matchup versus fellow shocker (pun intended) Wichita State with a chip on their shoulder. Guard Ramon Galloway has openly scoffed at the “Cinderella” distinction, and made the (correct) point that they deserve to be where they are.
The same is true for Wichita State. The Shockers took down top-seeded Gonzaga last Saturday night, and their team-wide excellence has been astounding thus far. Unfortunately, one of these two sides will lose their “don’t call it a Cinderella” run on Thursday.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of what La Salle must do to advance to the Elite Eight.
Ramon Galloway Must Continue to Ascend
One of the biggest lingering questions for La Salle heading into the tournament was about its star’s consistency.
Galloway was the Explorers’ leading scorer heading into the Big Dance at around 17 points per game, but ended his regular on a steep downtick in play. He had combined for just 12 points on 4-of-22 shooting, including 0-of-11 from three-point land, in losses to Butler and Saint Louis. Those defeats placed La Salle firmly on the bubble heading into Selection Sunday and left even more lingering questions about Galloway’s ability to handle the big moment.
Three games into La Salle’s tournament run later and Galloway is one of March’s biggest stars. He’s averaging 21.3 points per game while making more than half of his shots and knocking down four three-pointers on a nightly basis. Galloway has also distributed the ball well and only committed six turnovers thus far.
As La Salle continues through the tournament, Galloway’s performance level only becomes more important. The competition level will only continue to ratchet up, and with that comes a level of expectation. Galloway is a senior leader on this squad—there is no tomorrow once the Explorers’ NCAA tournament journey ends. He knows this, and his sense of the moment has been phenomenal thus far.
Galloway has the potential to drop 30 points on Thursday evening. He could carve up Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams. Galloway’s game also has the propensity to go careening off a cliff like a speeding 18-wheeler.
Whichever extreme Galloway vacillates toward versus Wichita State will prove crucial to keeping La Salle’s Elite Eight hopes alive.
Avoid Getting Abjectly Destroyed on the Boards
Barring a cataclysmic shooting performance from Wichita State, the Shockers aren’t losing the rebound battle. They are a top 20 team in offensive rebounding rate on both ends of the floor and have done a nice job of continuing that trait thus far in the tournament.
Meanwhile, La Salle’s continued atrocity grabbing boards may wind up being its downfall. The team ranked outside the nation’s 250 best teams in offensive rebounding rate, and the Explorers have been particularly dreadful in March. They are averaging only 27.3 rebounds per game, which is the worst of any team remaining in the Big Dance, and have been out-rebounded by 21 thus far.
One could play the “small sample size” game, but it doesn’t work here. The Explorers have been a bad rebounding team all season, and they have only gotten worse since Steve Zack got injured.
David Jones of The Patriot-News reports Zack’s foot is improving, but he’s still unlikely to play on Thursday. Without Zack, La Salle will once again go with its four-guard lineup, where 6’8” forward Jerrell Wright plays the role of all-encompassing “big man.” Wright has been a vital offensive cog thus far, missing just two of his 18 shots, but the Explorers will need him to approach double figures in rebounding.
What’s more, they cannot afford to lose “hustle” rebounds. Anything that is a 50-50 proposition must fall in La Salle’s hands, which is easier said than done against a Wichita State team that thrives on tenacity.
Nevertheless, losing those boards—and the second opportunities that come with them—could very well cost La Salle the game. Losing the rebounding battle is one thing—getting eviscerated is a death knell.
Win the Turnover Battle
Coming out ahead turnover-wise is arguably the biggest “key” for both teams other than “make more shots.” Turnovers are still the easiest way to create transition buckets and uneven numbers—it’s a basic tenet of basketball that everyone knows.
Heading into Thursday’s contest, the Explorers’ excellence in that category may be their biggest advantage.
La Salle’s propensity for forcing turnovers—and avoiding them offensively—has been a strength all season. The Explorers are 29th in the nation in turnover percentage on offense, and they are nearly a full two percent better than the national average defensively. They have also done no worse than tie opposing teams thus far in the tournament and have kept to a relatively low 10 cough-ups per contest.
Meanwhile, Wichita State is one of the most turnover-prone teams remaining in the Big Dance. The Shockers rank 158th in turnover rate this season, which is the fifth-worst among the 16 remaining Big Dance teams. They gave up the ball 15 times versus Gonzaga and even turned it over 11 times in their evisceration of Pittsburgh in the second round.
What’s interesting—and a good sign for La Salle—is that Wichita State does not have one major leak in its faucet. There is no player on the Shockers’ roster who averages more than 2.3 turnovers a night. There are, however, eight players who average more than one per game.
For a team that runs a below-average pace, those team-wide turnover problems have been a source of frustration all season long. If La Salle can simply keep both sides on its season-long path, the Explorers should be able to create a few extra opportunities and get their players moving in transition.
With Galloway especially excelling in the open court, forcing a few turnovers early could be hitting two birds with one stone. Either way, La Salle is not advancing to the Elite Either without first winning the turnover battle.
All advanced stats are via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
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