If it wasn’t for Aaron Craft’s late-game heroics, we might have a West region in which none of the top five seeds even advanced to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles. Perhaps that’s how La Salle, one of the happiest teams in the NCAA tournament, also remains one of the most anonymous nationally: Hardly anyone is paying much attention to the weakest part of the bracket.
No. 2 Ohio State barely escaped Iowa State. No. 1 Gonzaga (Wichita State), No. 3 New Mexico (Harvard) and No. 4 Kansas State (La Salle) all lost to teams that were not considered legitimate NCAA tournament contenders.
Now, two of those teams that pulled upsets on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament meet in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in a game that has been off the radar in comparison to the rest of the field. No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast in the South has emerged as the underdog story, for good reason, overshadowing the fact that either 13th-seeded La Salle or ninth-seeded Wichita State will be playing in the West regional final on Saturday for a Final Four spot.
Given the presence of Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16, along with marquee matchups like Duke-Michigan State, Indiana-Syracuse and Kansas-Michigan on the schedule over the next two days, it’s easy to overlook a game between the Explorers and Shockers.
I’m certainly guilty. I’ve spent the last two weekends at the same site as La Salle — at the Atlantic 10 tournament and the NCAA tournament — and I’d be lying if I said I made the Explorers a priority, thanks to the presence of Butler, VCU and Saint Louis in Brooklyn and Marshall Henderson, Kansas and North Carolina in Kansas City.
But here they are, from the bubble fringes to three straight tournament wins (including a play-in win over Boise State in Dayton) and a trip to Los Angeles with a Final Four bid not entirely out of the question. They’ve beaten Kansas State and SEC tournament champion Ole Miss; why can’t they beat Wichita State and Ohio State or Arizona too?
It feels like a big underdog story, but don’t tell that to La Salle.
“It’s a Cinderella story to the media and everybody that looks down on La Salle because ain’t nobody have La Salle winning this much or coming this far in the dance,” La Salle guard Ramon Galloway said last weekend. “But for us, we already said that through the whole year we can play with everybody.”
It is true that La Salle has played with and beaten solid competition. The Explorers own regular-season wins over tournament teams Villanova, Butler, VCU and Iona, although, to be fair, it is easy to overlook a team that lost to Central Connecticut State in November, even if none of the Explorers’ other losses were particularly bad.
Galloway is the centerpiece of the Dr. John Giannini-coached team, one with mediocre depth but an excellent guard rotation, along with a rock-solid big man in Jerrell Wright. A transfer from South Carolina, Galloway averages 17.4 points per game for the season, and the team appears to go as he goes. In nine losses, he’s shot only 29.9 percent from the field. In 24 wins, he’s shot 48.5 percent. At the A-10 tournament, he went 1-for-10 with four points in a second-round loss to Butler, a game that at the time appeared to have knocked the Explorers into the NIT for the second straight year.
Instead, they survived their Brooklyn disappointment and, with the help of poor performances from teams like Kentucky, sneaked into their first NCAA tournament since 1992, and now their first Sweet 16 since they appeared in back-to-back national finals in the 1950s – the days of star Tom Gola, college basketball’s all-time leading rebounder and the 1955 national player of the year.
In three games so far, Galloway has shot 22-of-41 (53.7 percent) and scored 21, 19 and 24 points, making him the focal point of a quick, guard-centric rotation that also features Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland, who made the game-winning floater against Ole Miss with 2.5 seconds left.
“They are so explosive off the dribble, the most explosive team we’ve played all year off the bounce,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
… All of which sets up one of the more interesting matchups of the weekend, even if it receives a fraction of the attention of others and is stuck with a 10:17 ET tipoff on Thursday night.
Wichita State holds opponents to 0.91 points per possession (43rd nationally) and is also in the top 50 in defensive field-goal percentage and steals, and just outside in blocks. Both Pittsburgh and Gonzaga – two of the most efficient offensive teams in the country – shot only 35 percent from the field against the Shockers.
La Salle’s defense, meanwhile, is unspectacular, and Wichita State matches up pretty well with a fairly deep roster led by forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall and guards Malcolm Armstead, Tekele Cotton, Demetric Williams and Ron Baker.
Neither team has nationally known names, but Wichita State actually has some of the March cache La Salle wants, as a Sweet 16 team in 2006, NIT champions in 2011 and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament last year that was upset by 12th-seeded VCU. It’s La Salle, strangely, that’s still fighting to make a name for itself, despite its storied history. Posting a winning record in consecutive seasons for the first time in two decades, La Salle is now the only team left standing from the Big Five and a strong Atlantic 10.
“The thing we’re trying to carry on is getting La Salle back on the map,” Galloway said. “… Now that we have our opportunity to play, we have to seize the moment and show everybody that La Salle is not just an Atlantic 10 basketball team that’s just having a Cinderella run. We want to show everybody that we’re talented.”
Boise State-Kansas State-Ole Miss-Wichita State would not exactly be the most glamorous route to a regional final, but little about the season has been glamorous for the Explorers. Yet, here they are. Perhaps it’s time to take notice.