KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Don’t stand around weeping for the Atlantic-10, kids. You just might end up getting punched in the mouth.
“When I transferred from South Carolina, I didn’t know how good the Atlantic-10 was,” La Salle guard Ramon Galloway said after his 13th-seeded Explorers stunned No. 4 seed Kansas State, 63-61, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “Playing in there for two years, it’s a game every day. You’ve got to fight every day, every second, every moment.”
How good is the A-10? Six games so far in Bracketville. And, so far, six victories.
The list of postseason victims includes more ballyhooed representatives from the ACC (North Carolina State) and the Big 12 (K-State). The league’s two best teams, Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth, were widely tapped as sleeper Final Four picks — and the Billikens and Rams looked every bit the part in their NCAA openers, winning by an average margin of 33 points.
Hey, no wonder Temple, Butler and Xavier want to get the hell out.
“The other thing I told them (on Selection Sunday),” Explorers coach John Giannini recalled, “because they felt bad about losing to Butler, Saint Louis, I told them, ‘You’re far better prepared for this tournament than you realize. You just lost to two potential Final Four teams. You’re not going to play against anyone in this tournament that’s tougher than Saint Louis or Butler.”
La Salle looked every bit battle-tested Friday, stunning a partisan-purple Wildcat crowd at Sprint Center by racing to a 24-9 lead, taking an 18-point lead into halftime, and then surviving a furious K-State comeback in the second half.
The Explorers did it the way the Wildcats usually do it — with defense. K-State was 0 for 8 from the floor over the final four minutes of the contest, including a contested, desperate behind-the-backboard jumper from point guard Angel Rodriguez along the baseline with two seconds left that effectively sealed the upset.
K-State had just one field goal over the final 5:16, thanks in part to defensive adjustments on the ball-screens that had been chewing La Salle up in the second half.
“I was matched up with their ‘4′ man (Shane Southwell), and he faces the basketball a lot,” Explorers guard D.J. Peterson explained. “He’s 6-foot-6, I’m 6-5. We knew if we switched screens, that (it) was going to mess them up. So that’s what we did.”
With that, La Salle officially joined the “Bracket Busters” club, alongside Florida Gulf Coast, Oregon, Cal, Harvard and Ole Miss, the Explorers’ surprising dance partner for Sunday’s third-round matchup in Kansas City.
For a few hours on Friday, La Salle — in its first NCAA tourney since 1992 and a multi-game winner in the Dance for the first time since 1955 — sat at the center of the hoops universe. Guard Tyreek Duren’s smart phone sat beeping in his locker stall as congratulatory message after congratulatory message rolled in.
“Right now, I’m at 86,” Duren said, looking down at the phone. “Sometimes, I don’t even get to read most of the messages. It’s been like that the last week. After the two wins, after the one we got the other night, and after this game, it’s been crazy.”
Following a victory over Boise State in a First Four matchup at Dayton on Wednesday, the Explorers got on a charter flight in southern Ohio at roughly 1 o’ clock Thursday morning. The entourage landed in Kansas City at roughly 3 a.m. local time, and started breaking down K-State game film during lunch Thursday afternoon.
“People (watching on) television might not really realize it, but people who actually played, we realize it, because it starts taking a toll on your body,” Duren said. “And you start feeling it in the second half.”
Still, the Explorers managed to soldier through the fatigue, especially on the defensive end. With their small lineup and chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, La Salle harkens back a bit to the Cinderella 2010-11 VCU team that rolled from the first round all the way to the Final Four.
“We don’t want to be the next anybody, we want to make a name for ourselves,” Duren allowed. “We want to be La Salle … we want to be that team that everybody doubted and nobody had hopes for. And we want to show everybody that we shouldn’t have been playing in the play-in game.”
And, sure enough, one of the last teams in is one of the last teams still standing. The Explorers’ 23 wins are the most for the program in a single campaign since the 1989-90 team went 30-2 — a squad that included Wooden Award winner Lionel “The L-Train” Simmons at forward. Simmons, now 44, sat in a far corner of the La Salle locker room in a blue Phillies cap Friday, grinning from ear to ear like a proud uncle.
“I’m sweating, I tell you,” chuckled Simmons, who would later play seven seasons with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. “I’m just so happy for these guys, man. These guys worked hard … these guys have a lot of confidence, a lot of Philly cockiness in them, which is good.”
“We think we could make a run,” Peterson continued. “Because the conference we play in all year prepared us for this moment, right now.”
Which, if you’re an A-10 fan, is the most bittersweet part of an otherwise stellar first tourney weekend. Butler and Xavier are departing in late June for the new, basketball-first Big East. Temple, meanwhile, is jumping for the football-first offshoot of what used to be the Big East.
“It shows the A-10 is a great conference this year,” Explorers guard Tyorne Garland said, “and I’m kind of mad they’re breaking it up a little bit.”
And he’s not alone, either. If this really is the final bow for the A-10 as we know it, it’s not leaving college basketball’s biggest stage without a few encores first.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org