Manhattan coach Steve Masiello never hides the fact that he’s a Rick Pitino disciple through and through. He played for Pitino at Kentucky, assisted with him at Louisville, and now much of the success he’s had in Riverdale is employing the same style of coming after opponents with pressure and traps and anything else to make it difficult to traverse the 94 feet from one hoop to the other without coughing it up.
It won the Jaspers the MAAC title last season, and national defensive turnover rates of 34th, 30th, 17th last season, and 8th this year under Masiello don’t lie, Manhattan is a pain to play against.
But it’s not as easy as it looks. The trend toward slower, lower scoring games has plenty to do with coaches who want more control and just don’t want to take the time to employ a fairly complicated and risky system (Pitino’s Louisville is 14th in defensive turnover rate this season, while Pitino’s son Richard is 4th with Minnesota, although the Gophers are currently only 3-7 in Big Ten play. Bob Huggins and West Virginia lead the country, and have been ridiculed for playing “ugly” basketball).
Despite the gaudy turnover rate numbers, Manhattan’s defense has not been what it was in the past this season, currently ranking 208th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency after being 35th last season. The style of play lends itself to opponents getting lots of offensive rebounds and fouling plenty. But the Jaspers are only 185th in eFG% defense this season (after finishing 28th last season), which means when their press isn’t turning people over, opponents are getting layups and dunks.
But Masiello has stayed the course with his inexperienced team, and when his high pressure is working well, it’s an artform. Sunday, the Jaspers harassed, haggled, pestered, annoyed and any other synonym you want to use a pretty good Monmouth team on the road into looking, frankly, just poor, at least in the first half and by the time they could shake themselves free, Manhattan had KOed them, 87-76, at the MAC, in a game that probably wasn’t that close.
“I think you saw reckless abandon in the first half, and we want to play with reckless abandon,” Masiello said. “I’m not trying to sell anyone on the stock here, but this system isn’t easy. It looks like total chaos, but everything is very orchestrated. It takes a while to get it. We lost guys that were big parts of it (last season). I think you saw we’re starting to get it now, there are some good signs, we did some good things. When we’re playing that type of basketball, we’re a tough out.”
Monmouth (12-11, 8-4) scored 52 points in the second half in a wild comeback attempt, but were held to just 0.71 points per possession in the first half on 7-24 shooting with 10 turnovers. By then the Jaspers (11-10, 8-4) had hooted and hollered their way to a 42-24 halftime advantage. A 9-2 Manhattan run to start the second half pushed the lead to 25 and it was game over.
“Give Steve (Masiello) the credit,” Monmouth coach King Rice said. “He had his team more ready than I had my team. Today is a disappointing day for how we played, but it’s not the end of the world. We’re a team that’s trying to become one of the best teams in the MAAC. You can’t do that without beating the best teams in the MAAC. And Manhattan has been one of the best teams for a while, and we’re trying to come up and get in their area.”
The second half featured 53 free throws, 36 fouls, and four technicals, three on Manhattan, but by then, the competitive portion of the game was complete and the officials were just trying to keep control of the contest. When Manhattan is at its best like Sunday, they do have an edge: a boisterous bench, an animated Masiello, and a swagger that was missing for much of the campaign. The Jaspers moved into a tie for third in the MAAC with Monmouth, a half-game behind Rider, and just two behind league-leader Iona, who they haven’t met yet. Masiello still thinks the best may be yet to come.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that’s our ‘C’ game,” Masiello said. “If we can get it to our ‘A’ game by March 1, I think we have pretty good chance.”
Also sparking the Jaspers has been the resurgence of senior Emmy Andujar, who led all scorers and scored a season-high 27 points (one off his career high) and added three steals. Since serving a one-game suspension against Canisius (flagrant foul), Andujar is averaging 20.1 ppg and has gotten to the free throw line 78 times in eight games. Like David Laury at Iona, there just aren’t many MAAC players who can matchup with him one-on-one and keep him from getting to the basket when he’s playing well.
“I keep saying it. In my opinion, if he (Andujar) is not first-team in this league, then… I love David Laury, I love A.J. (English), but for me, if Emmy’s not right there with those guys… ,” Masiello said. “I guess it’s like ice cream, do you like vanilla or do you like chocolate? But for him not to be in the conversation every day, I question the credibility of people who are doing that job.”
Shane Richards added 20 points on 6-9 shooting (4-6 3pt), while RaShawn Stores had a career-high nine assists. Stores and Tyler Wilson combined for 12 assists against just one turnover.
Justin Robinson scored 19 for Monmouth, but it was a relatively quiet 19 (9-10 from the free throw line). The Hawks only finished with 15 turnovers, which meant in a 74-possession game, their 20.3% rate was well below Manhattan’s season average (24.9%). But that only tells part of the story, as the Hawks were continually rushed into bad or challenged shots, especially in the first half.
“What Manhattan does is they make you take shots you should not take,” Rice said. “Today, we took the first one we got. Last week, we didn’t do that [Manhattan edged Monmouth 71-64 last week at Draddy Gym in a much closer game from start to finish]. The plan was the same. Their defense made us go faster and take bad shots because it’s basketball, guys want to score points, but you go too fast and they get the game going at a pace we don’t want to play at. Total domination by them today.”
Both Rice and Masiello said it’s a little too early to pay too much attention to the MAAC standings, but of there is a third meeting in Albany five weeks from now, he vowed to have his team ready.
“I pray that we get them again because we’ll stand up at least,” Rice said. “We’re a good team. This didn’t happen to us against West Virginia, SMU, Maryland. We came out here today thinking we were going to win because we were at home and we got beat down.”