La Salle Explorers

La Salle's non-conference schedule highlighted by Northern Ireland trip

La Salle's non-conference schedule highlighted by Northern Ireland trip

As a Big 5 school, La Salle men's basketball has some constants year to year in its non-conference schedule. But in 2017, the Explorers will do something no other college basketball team has done before.

La Salle's 2017-18 non-conference slate, announced on Thursday, is highlighted by a trip to Northern Ireland for the inaugural Belfast Classic, the first sanctioned college basketball tournament ever played on the Emerald Isle. The Explorers will face Towson on Dec. 1 in the opening game, with a chance to take on either Manhattan or Holy Cross the next day.

Three of La Salle's non-conference opponents ranked in the RPI top 50 last season: Villanova (3), Miami (44) and Northwestern (48).

"We want to challenge ourselves, better ourselves, and gain quality wins to enhance postseason possibilities," Giannini said in a press release.

La Salle returns four starters, including leading scorer B.J. Johnson. The Syracuse transfer and Lower Merion product averaged 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in his first season in blue and gold.

The season begins with a Nov. 11 on-campus game against St. Peter's as part of the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament. Two days later comes a Big 5 bout with Penn, followed by another Naismith game against South Alabama on Nov. 16. The Explorers then travel to Connecticut for the tournament portion of the event, where they'll play Northwestern, which made it to the NCAA Tournamnet for the first time last season, and then either Texas Tech or Boston College. 

Miami, featuring Neumann-Goretti High School product Ja'Quan Newton, will come north to face La Salle at a neutral site in Reading, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 22. Temple comes to Tom Gola Arena Nov. 26, then it's off to Belfast.

The final stretch before Atlantic 10 play begins with a Dec. 7 home game against Drexel. Villanova, with its on-campus arena under construction, will then host La Salle on Dec. 10 at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia. After hosting Mercer a week later, head coach John Giannini and the Explorers will travel to Bucknell to close out non-conference play against a team that won the Patriot League last year and is returning all five starters.

La Salle names Ashley Howard as new basketball coach

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Photo: La Salle University

La Salle names Ashley Howard as new basketball coach

La Salle didn't have to venture outside of the Big 5 to find its new basketball coach.

The university Sunday announced Villanova top assistant Ashley Howard has been hired as the Explorers' next head coach. Howard will be formally introduced in a press conference Monday at 11 a.m. 

"It's an honor and a privilege to be named the head coach at La Salle University," Howard said in a press release from the university. "I chose to coach at La Salle early in my career because of its incredible tradition in the Big 5, its dedication to athletic excellence and its commitment to its student-athletes.  To have the opportunity to return to campus and lead this storied basketball program — a program defined by greats such as Gola, Durrett, Brooks, Simmons and Butler — is one for which I'm deeply appreciative."

Howard, who attended Monsignor Bonner High and graduated from Drexel, began his coaching career in 2004 at La Salle as an assistant to Dr. John Giannini.

"As a former assistant coach here, we know firsthand that Ashley Howard is an exceptional coaching talent who has a deep understanding of both La Salle's basketball tradition and its important student-focused mission," La Salle director of intercollegiate athletics and recreation Bill Bradshaw said. "This is a university that holds character, integrity and commitment to that mission in the highest esteem, and our men's basketball coach has the unique responsibility of reflecting that on and off the court."

After four years with the Explorers, Howard returned to his alma mater in 2008 as an assistant coach for the Dragons until 2012, when he moved over to Xavier as an assistant. 

Following one season with Xavier, Howard returned to Philadelphia as an assistant on Jay Wright's staff, where he experienced two national championships.

"Ashley is an outstanding coach who made a great impact on our program and University in his five years with us," Wright said. "His passion for mentoring young men and teaching skill has been invaluable in our team's development. La Salle has made a terrific selection and all of us at Villanova are thrilled for Ashley, Ariana and Journey as they embark on this new phase of Ash's career."

Giannini's 14-year tenure with La Salle ended in late March when he and the university "mutually agreed to part ways."

Dr. John Giannini out after 14 years as La Salle's head coach

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USA Today Images

Dr. John Giannini out after 14 years as La Salle's head coach

After 14 years as the head coach, Dr. John Giannini is out at La Salle.

The university and head coach "mutually agreed to part ways," the school said in a statement.

Giannini will be best remembered for leading the Explorers to the Sweet 16 in the 2012-13 Cinderella season. 

He compiled a record of 212-226 at La Salle.

"I am truly blessed to have the relationships, challenges, and achievements that come from 29 years of being a head coach. In my time, I have witnessed hundreds of coaching changes involving many terrific coaches and schools," Giannini said in a statement. "Today, (athletic director) Bill Bradshaw and I mutually agreed that La Salle University could benefit from a new voice in leading the program. It is difficult to admit this but I have been given every effort possible for success and I have received nothing but support and encouragement from Bill and President (Colleen) Hanycz. 

"Greater things may be accomplished for this storied program and great university with the approach of a new coach. I am forever grateful, especially to my loyal staff and dedicated student-athletes. I look forward to my next challenge and La Salle's future success."