The last time the La Salle Explorers won an outright Big Five title — the longstanding championship of the Philadelphia college basketball scene — was the 1989-90 season. They made the NCAA tournament that year, and again in ’91-92, but in the 20 years since, it’s been an elongated dry spell. In fact, the only postseason basketball they’ve played in the ensuing years came last season, with a first-round NIT loss. That’s about to change under coach John Giannini, who won a Division III national title at Rowan College and was the head coach at Maine before coming to La Salle in 2004. It’s been a slow climb back to respectability, but at 8-3 in the new and improved Atlantic-10, Giannini and the Explorers are poised to make their first NCAA tournament in two decades.
With a win tonight over Temple (7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), they can also clinch an outright Big Five title. I spoke with Giannini on Monday about his season, the new Atlantic-10, and what the Big Five championship means to the team, the university, and the city.
More on the Big Five Championship
I’d like to ask you first about the Big Five. It’s interesting because there’s so much history behind it, and yet, besides pride, there’s not a real tangible benefit that comes from winning. What does it mean to you, this chance to give La Salle its first outright victory in so long?
Well, first, let me clarify a little bit about it, because I’m originally from Chicago and I didn’t know anything about the Big Five coming here. But it’s unlike anything in all of college basketball. There are five teams in this city that have all been to a Final Four. No other city has more than two. The Palestra was one of the first big arenas used for college basketball, and it was the home court for all five Philadelphia teams. That means this city was born and bred on watching the highest level of college basketball in double- and triple-headers in the Palestra every week. This city saw the best teams and the most dramatic games and the city became hooked on college basketball, so there’s very few major cities where college basketball has this kind of passion.
And the rivalries are incredible. My next-door neighbors are St. Joe’s alums, some of my daughter’s teachers are Temple alums, my own daughter now attends Villanova, so there are ties to these schools throughout this city. Everyone you know roots for a particular school, and bragging rights is always an issue.
Another way of looking at the history: If you look at combined NCAA tournament bids, these five schools I think have had around 140, which dwarfs the combination found in any other city. There’s nothing else like it. Especially when you go to the Palestra like we did this Saturday, and it’s about 4,500 St. Joe’s fans against 4,500 La Salle fans and the place goes crazy on every play. And you could feel the ghosts and the history in the Palestra, because there’s been more games played there than any other arena in the country. So that’s quite a backdrop.
But to me there’s a very tangible part of the Big Five. And that is, the Big Five champion is always an NCAA tournament team and always nationally relevant. If you can win in Philly, you’re good enough to compete at the highest level. So it’s not just the rivalries and the bragging rights and the fact that it can help your local recruiting. To me it’s the ultimate proving ground. If you can win in Philly, the odds are that you’re going to be in the NCAA tournament and capable of making the run.
Do the players care about this? Is it something they talk about?
In our program, we care about it more than anything. In our program we always say that if you’re the best in Philly, you’re going to be in the NCAA tournament. And it’s true throughout history. Whether it’s Jameer Nelson’s great teams at St. Joe’s, or the recent Final Four team at Villanova, and of course the national champion under Rollie Massimino, or La Salle with Lionel Simmons or all of John Chaney’s and Coach Dunphy’s great teams, or Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney at Penn … if you’re the best team in Philly, you’re a major player nationally. And we talk about it all the time. Again, why should we worry about Texas or Stanford or Florida State when we have great rivals right here in our own city, and the winner of the Big Five always goes to the NCAA tournament and is a national-caliber team?
So is this the biggest game of the year?
Yes and no. It is because it’s something we believe in and it’s a major goal of ours, but after that game it’s over and the next game becomes the most important. So yeah, right now because it’s the next game, yes, but after that, Rhode Island will become the most important game of the year.
The 1989-90 season is the last time La Salle won an outright Big Five championship. Is that something that’s in the minds of people at La Salle — whether it be students or faculty, is this something that the university cares about?
Up until the early ’90s, La Salle was one of the best basketball programs in the nation. The résumé stacks up. If you throw out the true blue bloods — Kentucky, Indiana, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, and Kansas — La Salle’s tradition was as good as anyone. And once they joined the A-10, things got a little tough, but if we keep doing what we’re doing, it’ll be our fifth upper-division A-10 finish in the last seven to eight years, and we’ve become a consistently good team in the A-10.
I think that’s something to be proud of, but people at La Salle remember being at the national level, and everyone’s aware of it being a long time. So, yeah, people are aware of it and they’re proud of that tradition, but we want to be strong now. Not just back in the early ’90s and the ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, ’50s. We want to be strong now, and a lot of people have worked a long time to make that happen. We have a month of very hard work to do, and it’s going to be extremely challenging to continue what we’ve done. But we’re sure going to do everything we can.
Any specific moments from this season where you can remember players or even maybe some old-timers who remember the tradition, who have talked about the Big Five?
It’s every day. This is a big deal here. This is not, oh, once in a while you think of La Salle’s tradition, or you think about the great things they’ve done, or you think about the rivalries. This is thought about every day at La Salle and in Philadelphia. It’s truly a passion. Our alumni are passionate, and they should be, because they’ve witnessed some of the best players in history. They’ve seen three national players of the year, which is second only to Duke and Ohio State. They’ve seen NCAA tournament teams, and they’ve seen a national championship team. This is a passionate school about basketball, and it’s a passionate city, and it’s something people think about all the time.
Let’s talk about your team. This is your ninth year at La Salle, and you’ve had increasing success. Is it fair to say this team is your best?
Yeah, it’s — we live in a profession that can be very black-and-white. They often say your record is what you are. That can be harsh. Sometimes you’re better than your record, but people don’t want to hear that. People are interested in winning games, and fortunately this group has won at a higher rate than our other teams.
It sounds like maybe you think some previous teams were just as good or better, but the record didn’t reflect it.
Well, no, I actually do think this is our best, and the record reflects it, but I’m not sure that’s always the case. But I think it does in this situation.
To get to know your team a little better, Galloway and Duren are the leading scorers, and you’ve got a number of upperclassmen and a couple sophomores who are the leaders, would you say? Define that however you want.
Well, the verbal leader is definitely (point guard) Ramon Galloway, and he’s effective because he walks the walk in addition to talking it. He brings tremendous energy to our team, he’s enthusiastic, and I think that has a very positive impact on our team. Our leader by example is Tyreek Duren and Sam Mills. Sam is a high-level defender and a very consistent player with his effort, so he leads by example. Where Tyreek leads is with tremendous poise. When things get tight and you’re in a big game, and you’re in an emotional situation, he’s definitely going to bring your team tremendous poise at crunch time. And that may be the best type of leadership of all. He’s the guy that, when things — when your back is up against the wall, he’s going to come through for you. So we have an emotional, verbal leader that brings us tremendous energy in Ramon, we have a great leader by example in Sam Mills, and we have a guy in Tyreek Duren that is really there for you when things get tough. And I think those are all different types of leadership, but all very important.
Other than Steve Zack and Jerrell Wright, who each play a little more than 20 minutes per game, you’re pretty small, with a lot of good shooters. Can you describe the style you’ve adopted and how you’ve competed in a very good A-10?
Yeah, we have guards and big guys, but we don’t have any wings or in-between type guys. Everyone knows their jobs. Our big guys are true bigs — they’re physical, they’re strong, they’ll rebound, they’ll post up, they’ll set screens, they’ll do tough things. Our guards are quick, they can make plays, they can make shots, they’re complete, they can dribble, pass, and shoot. So we have guys who understand their jobs and they’re very good at those jobs.
You have excellent 3-point defense, and you actually allow the highest percentage, proportionally — you allow the most 2-pointers compared to 3-pointers of any team in the country. And that’s probably a reflection of the height and the fact that you have these quick guards. How important has it been to have that strong perimeter defense?
I think if you look at box scores, the team that makes the most 3s often wins. To the average fan, the importance of the 3-point shot is not fully understood. I don’t even know the stat, but I would be interested in the winning percentage of the team that makes more 3s. And I would venture to guess that if a team makes eight or more — or especially 10 or more — the winning percentage is extremely high. So we do pressure the ball, which limits open looks from 3-point range. That pressure will often also help us create turnovers.
We want a better 2-point field goal percentage. We’ve gotten better at that, but our defense is a little bit better than it looks because we don’t give up a lot of 3s, and we do create turnovers, and we haven’t been fouling a lot either. There’s no team that’s great at everything, and certainly if you pressure the ball and are a little bit small you may give up some more 2s, but there’s a lot of other strengths to our defense in terms of not giving up 3s, creating turnovers and limiting fouls.
Going off that, would you say that in your mind, in college basketball, the guard is at this point a more important position than the center?
It always is. If you have a really good big guy but nobody to get him the ball, it’s not going to work. And also if you have a good big guy but people don’t respect your perimeter shooting, the guy’s going to be surrounded. Plus, you have the matter of getting the ball up the court, initiating the offense and making a good decision. If you’re not Magic Johnson or Kevin Durant, you’re going to need a smaller, more skilled player to do that. I think that big guys are a luxury, but good guards are a necessity. I can’t think of any good team that doesn’t have good guards.
You’ve had a great year almost from the beginning, but would you say that people started to take national notice when you had back-to-back wins over Butler and VCU in late January? Was that the moment?
We won 21 games and finished in the top part of the A-10 last year, and went to the NIT, so this is not an overnight success story by any means. But when you beat two ranked teams in the same week, you certainly do get more national recognition. We’re fortunate the schedule worked out that way. I think if you win one of those games in January and one in February, you don’t get the blitz of attention that we got by having them in the same week.
What was your reaction when you found out that Butler and VCU were coming to the A-10?
I enjoyed being the coach at the University of Maine so much that the no. 1 criteria for me to leave Maine was going to a high-major, multi-bid league. So this is what I wanted. I wanted to be in a league where you could beat ranked teams and become a ranked team yourself and where you could finish in fourth or fifth and still make the NCAA tournament. Of course, everyone wants to be a league champion, but it does take some pressure off when you’re in a multiple-bid league, and that’s not necessary to go to the NCAA tournament.
Now, the tough thing happens when you realize you don’t always like it when you get what you wish for. You know, it’s great that we can get four to six bids, but there’s also going to be a really outstanding team finishing 10th or 11th in this conference. There’s going to be a very good team finishing 12th or 13th and not make the A-10 tournament. I know of one team in our league right now that’s fighting to get into the A-10 tournament that was looked at as an NCAA-level team coming into conference play—
You’re talking about Dayton?
Yeah, yeah. They were 10-4 with great wins and they’re still a tremendous team. They’re flat-out really good. But not everyone can win. So it’s good that we’re a multi-bid league, but the downside of it is that there’s someone awfully good that’s going to finish ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth.