La Salle head coach Dr. John Giannini has experienced the brightest lights of March Madness, leading his Explorers to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2013. But Giannini still vividly remembers his time in the America East, where he cut his teeth as a Division I head coach leading the University of Maine from 1996 to 2004.
And what Giannini has to say about the America East might surprise fans of both high-major and mid-major basketball alike.
“The America East, when I was there, was a really, really strong league. And it was a recruiting league, where you really kind of had to land a couple of extremely good players to win it,” he said, contrasting it against his current Atlantic-10 where, “We were at the point where if you got an Andy Bedard and a Nate Fox, or a Huggy Dye and a Julian Dunkley, you were pretty talented. Frankly the most talented teams in that league won and didn’t get knocked off that much,” said Giannini, referencing Maine’s stars from the late 90s and early 2000s.
When Giannini was first hired as the head coach of Maine, the America East was in the end of a Golden Era of sorts, with Malik Rose having just led Drexel to three straight NCAA Tournaments, culminating in an upset over fifth-seeded Memphis, and heading off to a long career in the NBA. In Rose’s absence, several other young stars were stepping onto center stage, with Boston University, led by forward’s Tunji Awojobi and Joey Beard, grabbing the next league championship, followed by a pair of Delaware titles in 1998 and 1999.
“I often tell the old America East guys that Tunji Awojobi and Joey Beard would be one of the top 5-10 inside combinations in Division I right now, they were that talented,” said Giannini.
Awojobi finished his career as one of five Division I players to register career totals of 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 300 blocked shots. He joined a select group composed of Alonzo Mourning (Georgetown), Pervis Ellison (Louisville), Derrick Coleman (Syracuse), and David Robinson (Navy). Beard, a 6’10” top-100 high school recruit who signed with Duke out of high school, transferred to Boston University where he starred for two seasons. Both Beard and Awojobi would go on to play more than a decade apiece in professiona ball.
The torch was then passed from Boston University on to a young coach named Jay Wright, who was leading a resurgent Hofstra squad led by guards Speedy Claxton and Norman Richards. Wright of course would go on to coach Villanova to repeated NCAA Tournaments, including a 2010 run to the Final Four, and Claxton and Richards would go on to play in the NBA, but all three got their starts by leading Hofstra to the NCAA Tournament’s in 2000 and 2001.
Giannini’s Maine teams finished in the top four most years, including a program record 24 wins in 1999-2000 when they were perhaps a broken wrist to star point guard Andy Bedard away from going to the NCAAs,
“Jay Wright and I often debate how our Hofstra and Maine teams would have done against his Final Four and our (La Salle’s) Sweet 16 teams,” said Giannini. “Jay had two NBA players in Norm Richardson and Speedy Claxton. Then you throw in Mike Brey’s great teams at Delaware, Bill Herrion had great teams at Drexel, Dennis Wolff had great teams at Boston University. So you had five borderline high-major teams in the America East at that time.”
In sharp contrast to today’s America East, where on any night seemingly any team can beat any other, according to Giannini, parity was a word that did not exist in the league back in the day.
“At that time, the league was remarkably strong,” Giannini said. “I remember one year that Maine, Hofstra, Boston University, Delaware and Drexel were like a combined 48-2 against the rest of the league.”
Now looking to guide La Salle back to the NCAA Tournament, Giannini’s focus remains on the here and now, but every once in a while he still enjoys looking back on the league where he got his start.
“I really wish I could arrange that matchup between my guys at Maine and my guys at La Salle,” he says. “It would be a hell of a game.”