By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — His countenance is always the same. Very measured. Very assured. Always looking up and ahead. Never rattled. It doesn’t matter what boiling college basketball crucible you drop La Salle’s Tyreek Duren in, whether it’s Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse or Virginia Commonwealth’s Stuart C. Siegel Center, he won’t break.
The Explorers’ 6-foot, 185-pound junior point guard never has.
It’s why this year, in this college-basketball crazed city, there is no one better than Duren. No one.
The last time La Salle reached the NCAA Tournament was in the 1991-92 season, when the Doug Overton-, Randy Wood-led Explorers went 20-11. This year, the Explorers are 15-6 overall and sit fourth in the Atlantic 10 Conference at 5-3. This year, La Salle seems destined to snap that futile stretch.
La Salle will enter March armed with victories over top-25 teams Butler and VCU. The Explorers will also come loaded with Duren, who’s second on the team in scoring, averaging 14.1 points, and leads the Explorers in assists, averaging 3.4 assists a game. He rarely leaves the court, averaging a team-high 35 minutes a game.
Want a reason why the Explorers will crash the 20-year March Madness threshold—it’s easy, Duren.
“Tyreek is a big reason why we’re in the position we’re in; our goal every year is to make the NCAA Tournament, but it’s infinitely harder than people think it is, when you throw in automatic qualifiers and the fact there are an awful lot of people across this country committed to men’s basketball,” said La Salle coach John Giannini, who’s resurrected the program from the ashes of the mid-2000s. “To make the tournament, you need outstanding players who are outstanding people. Tyreek can play for anyone in the country, absolutely. He’s tremendous. A player like Tyreek makes coaching enjoyable, he’s just the kind of kid you can win with and build with. When we recruited him, we did with the NCAA Tournament in mind.”
Giannini uncovered a diamond. He likes the way Duren controls the game, and the great poise he’s shown in leading the Explorers’ offense. Duren almost always makes the right play. He’s not trying to be a scorer; he’s not trying to be a distributor. He does what’s needed to win. He’s smart, aggressive and unselfish.
Not many other schools seemed to have interest in Duren. The Yeadon, Delaware County product, by way of Neumann-Goretti, was bypassed by many big schools. It used to churn Duren’s insides watching players he went up against, players he used to routinely outplay on the national AAU circuit land at top-25 programs.
Duren, meanwhile, got nothing from the “big times.”
Instead, he got worry and concern.
“It was very motivating, especially with the people I played AAU against, and you see other guys I played against and saw them go to these tops schools when I didn’t get the letters,” said Duren, who choose La Salle over Temple and UMass. “I saw a lot of people that I played against that are playing at more high-profile schools and that got me angry and frustrated to a certain extent. All you can do is for that to motivate you and for you to do better.
“Hey, look where I am. I wouldn’t trade this for anything. This is my team and it’s exactly how I envisioned it. Coach G told me he was going to hand me the ball right away. Duke, Indiana, those coaches there wouldn’t have told a freshman they were going to hand the ball to them their freshman year. I think that’s the mistake a lot of Philly kids make, thinking those big schools are better and it’s a promising path to the NBA. They get caught up in the hype.”
Duren admits, he at one time did, too. He used to think he had no future in basketball. In fact, he used to doubt he had a future at all. His high school career began at the prestigious Haverford School, and then he transferred to Neumann-Goretti his sophomore year, after a short stint at local Penn Wood.
“My freshman and sophomore years I wasn’t getting any attention at all; I wasn’t getting anything and I thought basketball was a long shot for me—and that messed me up in my head,” Duren admitted. “I was getting bad grades at Haverford School and I had to do a lot of growing up. My mom was on me, my dad was on me. I never wanted to see my mom think of me in a certain way. She was afraid for me—that I was going down a wrong path.
“I think what changed it was seeing people around me get locked up and get caught up. I had someone I knew get locked up for attempted murder. I used to write him in jail. He was three years older than me. He was someone I knew and grew up with. Seeing what happened to him, that changed the way I thought.”
Duren received considerable help from Lamont Peterson and Tyreke Evans’ Team Final AAU program. The summer entering his senior year he exploded.
“Lamont and Team Final put me in the spotlight, La Salle is home and I wouldn’t trade these three years at La Salle for anywhere,” said Duren, who is aiming to eventually play in the NBA. “Coach G gave me that chance and I praise him for that. He believed in me when a lot of other people didn’t.”
Giannini surrounded Duren with a promising roster his freshman and sophomore seasons. But those teams underachieved, a major reason was chemistry issues and selfishness. This La Salle team, guided by Duren, appears heading in a great direction.
With the Explorers on his back, Duren is ready to carry them as far and deep as his stoic, bridge-strong cable attitude will go. He sees himself much like the school he plays for, shifting from underappreciated and unwanted to the national limelight.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t even mentioned anywhere, and now for me to go from there, to what some people think as the best college player in the city, that’s great,” Duren said. “I won’t be satisfied with it. I can’t. We’ve done some great things this year. We want more.
“Forget being recognized as being the best in the city—we want to let the country know about La Salle basketball. When I came here, this program was dead. I feel as though we, Coach G and his staff, the players he committed to, and who committed to him, we brought La Salle back to life. A few years ago, being considered a top team in the A-10 was a long shot. We brought it back to life and everyone is talking about us. And right now, I have to say it, I would take myself over anyone, that’s the way I have to think. I have to think I’m the best player in the city right now.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.