- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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DAYTON, Ohio -- True story: The La Salle Explorers used to be a basketball power.
You probably weren't born yet, and even if you were you might not be able to remember it, but in 1954 -- the same year Edward Murrow began investigating Joe McCarthy and Bill Haley & His Comets recorded "Rock Around The Clock," and one year before the Philadelphia Big 5 series, the sport's most unique old-school city competition, staged its first meeting -- the Explorers won the national title.
With that most cherished of college hoops qualities -- tradition -- established, La Salle maintained an off-but-mostly-on relationship with basketball success throughout the next four decades. It participated in NCAA tournaments in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and in 1989-90, went 30-2 thanks in large part to national player of the year Lionel Simmons -- the third-leading scorer in NCAA history.
Simmons and Michael Brooks, the 1980 player of the year, are both among the top 30 scorers of all time, and La Salle is one of only two programs (along with Houston) to boast such a circumstance. Duke and Ohio State are the only schools to field more national players of the year in college hoops history. Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, NBA Hall of Famer Tom Gola, Tim Legler, Rasual Butler and Gary Neal are alumni.
This knowledge is likely news to most college hoops fans, casual or otherwise, not to mention pretty much anyone born after 1980. And it is useful in understanding why La Salle's players talk -- as they did after Wednesday night's 80-71 First Four victory over Boise State -- about their first NCAA tournament berth in 21 years as not as the consummation of their efforts, but the start of something bigger.
"We're actually making a statement," senior guard Ramon Galloway, who finished with 21 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 8-of-13 shooting. "We didn't just get selected. We want to make a run. We want to show everybody La Salle can play with the best teams in the country."
They'll have the chance Friday. Wednesday night's win put La Salle in the bracket proper and headlong into a matchup with No. 4 seed Kansas State, which enters the tournament 27-7 with a Big 12 title share to its name.
And yet, there are reasons to expect the Explorers can make a push. La Salle's strength -- its four-guard lineup, its floor spacing, its penetration and deep shooting -- are what helped it finish 31-for-49 in a commanding offensive performance against Boise State, and it is not unreasonable to think Galloway and company could at least approximate that effort against a Wildcats defense that allowed a lenient 1.02 points per trip in conference play, fifth among Big 12 teams. Nor will the Wildcats have an obvious height advantage over a team whose "center," forward Jerrell Wright, is just 6-foot-8. K-State coach Bruce Weber has height on his bench, but has given the most minutes to Rodney McGruder, Angel Rodriguez, Will Spradling, Martavious Irving and Shane Southwell. The tallest, Southwell, is 6-foot-6.
Win or lose Friday -- and as much as they might deny it -- the mere appearance (and through at-large bid at that) in the NCAA tournament marks a return to some form of past relevance La Salle and its fans have been desperate to reclaim for decades.
On Wednesday night (the 59th anniversary of the school's national title victory by the way), La Salle coach John Giannini told reporters he had received texts from Legler, Butler, and former star Doug Overton. And the legendary Simmons watched the win in person. There will be much more attention if the No. 13 seed knocks off the No. 4 Friday. But for now, it's a start.
"People have tended to forget what a basketball power La Salle was for over four decades," Giannini said. "It's a big deal to re-establish that. It's a big deal for people who attended La Salle and love La Salle, who had great basketball, and certainly they've longed for that. So it's big."