In perhaps the meta moment of the wacky 2014-15 MAAC season thus far, Manhattan coach Steve Masiello perhaps explained perfectly why he shouldn’t be too angry after a tough 82-79 overtime loss to Rider Sunday at Draddy Gym … while being extremely angry about a home loss that would have seen his Jaspers (8-9, 5-3) be tied atop the conference standings as we near the halfway point.
“You guys think every year there’s going to be a team that comes here and go 19-1 (in the MAAC),” Masiello said. “I haven’t seen that in quite a while in this league. that doesn’t happen. Every game’s going to be a hard-fought game. There’s going to be some games that you win that you should lose, and there’s going to be some games that you lose that you should win.”
You could make an argument that Manhattan should have won Sunday’s game, they started the game forcing plenty of Rider turnovers and had a nine-point lead by the second media time out. The Jaspers missed a couple of free throws late in regulation that might have given them the win and had a good look from Emmy Andujar at the buzzer rim out.
Manhattan’s performance on the defensive end left plenty to be desired, allowing Rider (12-7, 6-2) to shoot 60.7% from the field in the second half (17-29) and 57.4% for the game (35-61). Perhaps most importantly, the Broncs only turned the ball over five times in the final 35 minutes of the contest, allowing them to finish with a respectable 18.3% turnover rate, well below Manhattan’s season average (they are currently sixth nationally at 25.4%). All that added up to an unacceptable 1.15 points per possession for Rider and an understandably upset coach.
“I don’t get caught up in the league play as much as I get caught up in whether we’re playing good basketball,” Masiello continued. “We didn’t play good basketball, and you have to give Rider credit for that.”
Indeed, Rider has been a nice surprise, at least to the league coaches, who picked the Broncs seventh in the preseason poll. Rider is exceptionally balanced and Sunday’s hero was junior Khalil Alford, who came in as the ninth leading scorer … on his own team (2.6 ppg), but finished with a career-high 14 points off the bench, including Rider’s last two field goals in overtime to seal the win.
It’s probably not a coincidence Alford’s previous career high was also against Manhattan. The Jaspers’ aggressive zone generally leaves a hole at the free throw line, which tends to be a tough range for players at this level to make because it’s just not practiced that much. But Alford was money (official term) from there, finishing 7-10 from the field.
“That’s something we work on, especially against Manhattan who likes to put a lot of pressure against you out at the top,” Rider coach Kevin Baggett said. “That middle was open. Against any press, the middle is open, and Khalil is one of those guys who is good at finding the open areas of the zone, then catching it, facing up, and making the shot. So not only him, (Anthony) D’Orazio (12 points, averaging 4.7 going into Sunday) did a good job of that too today.”
Per usual, Rider got contributions from plenty of players. Teddy Okereafor, Jimmy Taylor, and Matt Lopez (despite dealing with foul trouble) joined Alford and D’Orazio in double figures, with Okereafor adding seven assists and six steals to his 16 points. They will host Iona Thursday night at Alumni Gym.
“This team is finding ways to win,” Baggett said. “We talked about depth. We talked about coming up here against a very tough opponent that beat us twice last year. I thought our guys did a really good job of competing and understanding that if we could take care of the ball, we would give ourselves a chance to win.”
However, the obvious difference on the scoreboard aside, is there much difference between Rider and Manhattan right now? One play sticks out to me, with the game tied at 72 and 1:15 left in regulation, Rider probably should have turned the ball over on a pass in the lane that bounced off a couple of Manhattan hands and legs. But it took a fortuitous bounce for Rider, ended up with Lopez just a foot from the hoop and gladly laid it in to give the Broncs the lead.
Masiello would counter that his team should have gotten that loose ball, and plays like that are indicative of a lackluster defensive effort (Manhattan wasted a good offensive effort: Shane Richards and Andujar scored 21 points each with Ashton Pankey continuing his good play with 18 and the Jaspers posted 1.11 points per possession), but the next time, maybe that ball bounces that way or Andujar hits that last shot and the narrative is flipped, isn’t it?
Heck, Manhattan was coming off an overtime win at Saint Peter’s less than 48 hours prior, while this was Rider’s third straight game decided by three points or less (they went 2-1).
A quick check of the MAAC standings, and Iona’s position as favorite took a huge hit with the injury to Isaiah Williams, who might have the notoriety of David Laury or A.J. English, but ranks fifth nationally in eFG% (68.8) and 10th in offensive rating (Iona has only said Williams has a “foot injury” and say he had a small fracture in his foot, but other reports have him out 4-6 weeks, which would put his return in late February, early March). The pack of contenders also includes Monmouth, who is currently tied with Iona and Rider at the top, and Saint Peter’s and Quinnipiac – despite losing records – also probably merit some consideration, while flawed Siena (defense) and Fairfield (offense) have still managed to get to .500 in the league. Even Niagara has had its moments, and Marist – now healthy – has been in close games of late.
KenPom tells us even home teams aren’t safe in MAAC play, with away teams having won the majority of conference games so far this season (54.5%, higher than only four of 32 other conferences). The MAAC ranks sixth in games decided by four points or less well (31.8%).
So, while losses obviously stink and winning is great, let’s remember that each game is going to be different from here on out in the MAAC, and while it will be enormous fun for everyone involved, one game likely will not make or break you the way things are set up in the conference this season.
Except when we get to Albany in March, however, where several teams are likely to be broken.