By Jon Rothstein
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The additions of Butler and VCU made the Atlantic-10 a conference to watch during the upcoming college basketball season.

The Bulldogs and Rams have both been in the Final Four recently and join a league that just sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. There’s also already palpable buzz about just how difficult and competitive the conference will be on a nightly basis.

A general consensus seems to exist that Saint Louis, St. Joseph’s, and UMass are the three best teams in the Atlantic-10 with VCU, Butler, and Temple right behind. But there’s another school in Philadelphia that has all the requisites to be right in the mix at the top of the conference standings for the duration of the season — La Salle.

Dr. John Giannini returns the majority of components from a squad that won 21 games last year and qualified for the NIT. The Explorers will be a year older and more experienced, giving them a legitimate chance to earn the school’s first NCAA bid since the 1992.

“We’ve always had the date of Selection Sunday up in our locker room,” Giannini said recently. “We’ve always talked about it and we’ve had good talent on certain teams in the past but there’s no question we’ve never been closer to the NCAA Tournament than we are right now.”

The main reason for that is La Salle’s perimeter.

Gone is versatile guard and leading scorer Earl Pettis but the Explorers return starters Tyreek Duren, Ramon Galloway, and Sam Mills as well as key reserve D.J. Peterson, a 6-foot-5 lefty who could fill the void that Pettis’ left behind. Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland is another capable piece that will be eligible to play in December at the conclusion of the first semester.

Just like last season, La Salle to use four-guard alignments with regularity as Giannini tries to maximize his team’s speed and isolation skills.

“Our guards as a group are outstanding and when you play them four at a time, every stat goes up except rebounding,” Giannini said. “Collectively, they’re as good as anyone.”

The stone cold Duren is the leader of the group and one of the more underrated floor generals in the country. As a sophomore last season, Duren averaged 13 points, four assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 39% from 3-point range and 47% from the floor.

“He’s got the “it” factor,” Giannini said of Duren. “He doesn’t get rattled. I used to worry about his motor and energy but he’s just so good in big games. He’s consistent every time he takes the floor.”

Both Mills and Galloway were double figure scorers last season and should steadily improve with another year of seasoning. Mills is an extremely cerebral guard while Galloway’s ability to rebound is a big reason why La Salle was able to play so many guards at one time last season.

Meanwhile, sophomore big man Jerell Wright is primed to be one of the better big men in the Atlantic-10 after averaging 9.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in just 19.8 minutes per game as a freshman. He’ll be paired up front frequently with 6-11 sophomore Steve Zack to provide a more conventional lineup when it’s needed.

“Jerell is going make a big jump from his freshman to sophomore year,” Giannini said of Wright. “And Steve Zack will be on the floor in a lot games. He’ll help us defensively and give us good strength and size up front.”

Red shirt forward Rohan Brown is also an intriguing prospect at 6-foot-6 and could develop into a glue guy down the road.

Garland meanwhile, won’t be eligible for the first month of the season but should be have a big role, especially when multiple guards are together on the floor.

“He’s got a good chance as does D.J. to replace what Earl (Pettis) gave us,” Giannini said of Garland. “He took a ton of shots in high school because his role was to score the ball but he’s actually going to be one of our better passers. He can really dish.”

La Salle has the experience, guard play, and depth to compete with anybody in the Atlantic-10. Now it’s just a matter of winning close games and taking another step in what is shaping up to be one of the better conferences in college basketball.

“We’ve got really good team chemistry,” Giannini said. “It may be hard for someone to stand out but collectively this group can get the respect it deserves.”

Do you think La Salle will be right in the mix this upcoming season? Be heard in the comments below!