Coming into the 2013 NCAA tournament, the La Salle Explorers weren't given much of a chance at getting out of their First Four game against the Boise State Broncos.
Three games later, the Explorers are the last team standing from the mid-major hotbed known as the Atlantic 10, and have a chance to be the first-ever No. 13 seed to reach the Elite Eight with a win over No. 9 Wichita State on Thursday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Surprisingly, La Salle has used a four-guard lineup effectively to make up for what was supposed to be their biggest weakness in the Big Dance—size.
Sophomore center Steve Zack (6'11") is the only true post on the roster. He's dealing with a foot injury that caused him to miss the last six games of the season, and that includes all three tournament wins so far.
To compensate for the loss of Zack, head coach Dr. John Giannini has relied on a guard tandem of Ramon Galloway, Sam Mills, Tyrone Garland and Tyreek Duren to create pressure on defense, turn that pressure into easy baskets and also create matchup problems for bigger opponents (see games against Kansas State and Ole Miss).
The Explorers have also relied on forward Jerrell Wright to make up for the loss of Zack in the middle, and the 6'8" post man has filled in admirably, and has missed only two shots (one from the field and one from the free-throw line) in the past two games.
Other teams are taking notice.
Patrick Stevens of USA Today wrote on Wednesday that the Explorers shouldn't be underestimated despite being a four-point underdog on Thursday night. Paul Suellentrop also wrote on his Wichita State blog on Wednesday the ways the Shockers will look to slow down the Explorers, and that mostly consists of avoiding turnovers and lazy passes.
However, the conclusions from both of those pieces is simple—La Salle is darn-near impossible to match up with when the three-headed monster of Galloway, Duren and Garland are all clicking.
It starts with Galloway, who is setting himself up to be an interesting prospect in the 2013 NBA draft.
The do-it-all guard was the leading scorer for La Salle in the regular season, averaging 17 points per game while adding over four rebounds and three assists per game, too. He's kept that streak alive this postseason, scoring more than 17 points in each of the first three games and hitting right around his season averages in the other categories.
Battery mates Duren and Garland are also matchup nightmares for opponents. Most teams only have one—two if a coach is lucky—defensive stopper. If you send that guy at Galloway, the other two guys have shown just as high a penchant for scoring. Not putting your best defender on Galloway seems to be ridiculous at this point, so what can you do?
Play a zone, maybe?
You could send your players out there to play a 2-3 zone, but recognize that La Salle currently leads the 68-team field in both three-point makes (27) and attempts (62) and its 43.5 percent success rate is fifth among remaining teams.
If you're getting a headache, it's probably because your favorite team could see La Salle in one of the next three rounds. I'd get a headache, too—this team is not easy to match up with.
To add another layer of intrigue to the story, Zack is attempting to come back from his foot injury if his teammates can survive the Shockers on Thursday night. David Jones of PennLive.com reported from Tuesday's practice that Zack was attempting to come back, but his return for the Sweet 16 was unlikely.
Unlikely is not impossible, however.
John Gonzalez of CSN Philadelphia reported on Wednesday that Zack was participating in a little bit of the team's practice, dunking and running to applause from teammates:
Steve Zack out on the court running and dunking. La Salle players cheering him #lasallembb— John Gonzalez (@gonzoCSN) March 27, 2013
Nothing is certain, but Zack's return would add another layer of defense and inside scoring to an already potent offensive lineup. If Dr. Giannini did not like what his sophomore center was doing, it wouldn't be that big of an adjustment to return to the four-guard lineup that has netted La Salle its first three-win tournament appearance since 1955—the last time the school was in the national championship game.
How far will the Cinderella run go for La Salle?
It all starts with Wichita State, but the Explorers have a lineup that poses problems to any of the teams they would see in upcoming rounds. If Ohio State advances, Aaron Craft can only defend one of these guards (though he would no-doubt attempt to defend the entire team). Louisville probably stands the best chance of matching up with the four-guard attack, though Michigan could have a case there, also.
La Salle is fun to watch, has exceeded expectations and made the rest of college basketball eat crow after it was selected to participate from the Atlantic 10 over more respected schools like Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama—all three of whom have been eliminated from NIT play.
The unexpected necessity to play four guards has turned into a blessing in disguise, though Wright's play on the inside and the unconsciousness of Galloway and Garland has allowed La Salle to survive two thrillers against higher seeds.
If the Explorers can survive the heavy inside game and rebounding prowess of the Shockers, they could add the "First No. 13 seed" tag to the rest of their accomplishments during the 2013 tournament.