Are the Flyers finding their defensive identity?

Kavanaugh defending the lane in a recent game at Ole Miss. (Photo by Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports)
Kavanaugh defending the lane in a recent game at Ole Miss. (Photo by Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports)

By Paul Gotham

DAYTON, OH – Let’s face it. La Salle is doing their darndest to make opposing defenses look good. In their last eight games, Dr. John Giannini’s team has eclipsed the 40 percent plateau from the floor just twice.


According to Basketball State the national field goal percentage average is 44.33.

The Explorers landed 15 of 55 shots (27.3 percent) against George Washington on January 29th and 15 of 50 (30 percent) versus St. Bonaventure, January 22nd.

Pepto-Bismol sales near W. Olney and N. 20th  are competing with Pharrell hats.

So when the Explorers connected on 17 of 48 (35.4 percent) shots Wednesday night against the University of Dayton, it begs the question: Was it the result of La Salle’s poor offense? Or are the Flyers finding their way on the defensive end on the floor?

The 65-53 win was the fifth straight for a Dayton team once given up for dead. In that span, UD has held its opponents under 65 points a game.

Against La Salle, UD looked like a defensive-minded team which can play offense instead of the other way around.

UD separated themselves from La Salle’s previous four opponents in that they created 17 turnovers – five more than the Explorers’ season average. Much of this defensive work occurred when La Salle entered the ball in the post.

La Salle’s Jerrell Wright (6-8) and Steve Zack (6-11) average more than 22 points a game combined. Against UD, they nearly (21 points) got that average, but it was at a price. The Explorers frequently tried to run their offense out of the post. The Flyers countered.

“We knew they were going to go inside on us, especially with Wright,” UD Head Coach Archie Miller stated. “It was being able to not give them angles for easy buckets. When they got the ball in there, kinda put the sink on them. Just drop and really sag on the dribble and try to get it out of there.”

Wright and Zack made seven field goals. They committed nine turnovers. Dayton, as a team, had 10 mishandles.

“We didn’t want them to have an island down there just to operate and be able to score on us,” Miller explained. “The whole deal was to get that thing out of the post in some way form or fashion.”

A brunt of the responsibility in the post fell upon the shoulders (figuratively and literally) of senior Matt Kavanaugh.

“Our big focus this week in practice was walling up with our hands straight up and just giving them a chest… so they have to go through a vertical body,” Kavanaugh explained. “It’s a lot harder to make those shots, and they’re a little bit more likely to pass it out or take a tough shot or turn it over.”

UD’s 6-10 center scored a season-high 16 on 5 of 8 shooting from the floor and 6 of 6 at the free throw line.  He also committed just two turnovers and was part of a Flyer frontcourt which outscored their counterparts in the paint, 32-26.

At the same time, the Flyers allowed 3 of 14 (21.4 percent) 3-pointers to a La Salle team which returned all but one player from a Sweet Sixteen squad which connected on 37.7 percent (national average 33.87) of the time a season ago.

“That was big time, man,” senior captain Devin Oliver stated. “We can credit our defense for our winning in February. Our defense has been good , but to get big time stops tonight was great.”

The defense gave UD’s offense a chance to find its rhythm. The Flyers who lead the A-10 shooting 47.3 percent from the floor started just 2 of 12 and trailed 11-4 early. From there, UD hit 9 of 18 to take a 27-21 edge at the break.

“It started with defense,” Kavanaugh stated. “It was one of our better defensive efforts of the year. When we’re getting stops, a lot is made up on offense.”

UD dropped five of six in January to open A-10, a stretch where they allowed 72.6 points a game.

Kavanaugh referred to practice habits as the reason for UD’s recent turnaround.

“It starts with our practice mentality. Every day in practice we work hard. It’s intense competition, so we just never lose that mindset. It transfers over to the game pretty well.”

It’s worth noting that the two teams La Salle has shot above 40 percent against are St. Louis and VCU. Yes, that SLU which leads the A-10 and is 22nd in the nation holding opponents to 39.8 percent from the field. VCU’s field goal percentage defense isn’t great (43.8 – tends to happen when you trade steals for layups – which the Rams work to their advantage), but the Rams hold opponents to less than 66 points a game. La Salle scored 73 in regulation. VCU won that game in double OT, 97-89. All this adds to La Salle’s enigma status. Just call them the Lady Gaga of A-10 men’s basketball.

At 6-5 in A-10 play UD sits in seventh, one game behind UMass and Richmond (Rich who? Rich-MOND –okay excuse the sidebar). The Flyers have a game in hand on fourth place George Washington (8-4). St. Joseph’s (8-3) holds third place. The Minutemen host VCU Friday night. GW plays at St. Louis. The Spiders host the Explorers. UD travels to St. Joseph’s on Tuesday.

Oliver can’t be bothered with all the palaver.

“You get caught looking ahead, and you get kicked in the butt.”

UD travels to Pittsburgh on Saturday for a battle with the Duquesne Dukes (11-14/3-9). A 2 pm tip time is slated at CONSOL Energy Center.

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