He wasn’t supposed to be here.
Steve Masiello will be standing on the sidelines at the Times Union Center tonight at 9 p.m., leading his Jaspers against archrival Iona for the third consecutive year with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line, but a little less than a year ago it seemed like this would never happen again.
After taking down the Gaels in last year’s MAAC title game, Masiello and his crew were handed perhaps the worst possible opponent in the round of 64: Louisville, the head coach’s former program which has become the model for Manhattan’s relentless pressure defense.
Perhaps it was the media hype of the apprentice taking on the master, a matter of the selection committee overloading Wichita State’s region or some other circumstance. Whatever the case, it was the last team Masiello wanted to see after fighting to earn the MAAC’s automatic bid.
“It’s just a tough matchup for us,” Masiello said of Louisville on Selection Sunday last March. “They’re not a 4 seed, they’re more like a 2 seed. We’re going to have our hands full. It’s one of those things you’ve got to be prepared for and be ready for, because he’s very dangerous. I don’t know if they’re one of those teams our style can bother.”
Regardless of the coach’s apprehension in facing his former employer on the big stage, Manhattan put on one of the best performances in the opening rounds of the tournament. The underdogs led the Cardinals by three at the final media timeout, but Luke Hancock and Russ Smith helped end the Jaspers’ upset hopes in the final 90 seconds.
Despite coming up short in the game, the near-upset paid immediate dividends for Masiello. Just days after Manhattan’s tournament exit, Masiello was linked to the vacant job at USF. Within a week, the deal looked to be done until a check into the coach’s background found he never received his diploma from Kentucky that was listed on his resume.
That discrepancy cost Masiello the job, which would have paid the coach upwards of $1 million per year over a five year period in addition to the upward mobility of coaching in the American Athletic Conference.
After the deal fell through, Manhattan welcomed Masiello back, but only after he officially completed his degree requirements at Kentucky over the summer. Masiello did so and was fully reinstated prior to this season, but the rest of his contract terms have been held under lock and key ever since.
And now he’s back.
It hasn’t just been Masiello’s personal odyssey that made the chances of this return to the MAAC championship game slim. The Jaspers graduated one of their best senior classes in history at the end of last season. George Beamon, Mike Alvarado, and Rhamel Brown represented a trio of 1,000 point scorers who led Manhattan’s charge to the NCAA tournament.
“That’s the thing I’m really proud of,” Masiello said of making it back with a new group. “Obviously we all know what Mike, George and Rhamel meant to this program, but for me and these guys, there’s a major pride factor.”
So who could have expected, even with Masiello back on the sidelines, that the Jaspers would have enough firepower to make it? Beamon, Brown, and Alvarado made all-MAAC first, second, and third teams respectively in their senior season while Brown was also Defensive Player of the Year.
Now led by a new group headlined by all-MAAC first team selection Emmy Andujar, Manhattan and Steve Masiello have made it back to the precipice. They have 40 minutes against their biggest rivals to prove the name on the front of the jersey means much more than the name on the back. Forty minutes for another chance to dance.
“They might not pass the ‘sexy test’ to a lot of people, but they’re coach’s dreams,” Masiello said of this year’s crew. “There’s not a coach in the country that wouldn’t love to have RaShawn Stores, Donovan Kates and Emmy Andujar. A lot of people want to tell me what they can’t do, look what they can do though – they win.”
Jaden Daly at Daly Dose of Hoops contributed to this story.
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.