Looks can be deceiving, right? Steve Masiello and the Manhattan basketball team certainly hope so because right now no matter how you slice it, the two-time defending MAAC champions look a long, long way from making it three straight come March.
Manhattan (1-5, 0-2) didn’t play a terrible game Sunday and had a 82.5 eFG% in the first half against Marist. The Jaspers even led by 11 midway through the second half, using the running and jumping defense and pressure that had made them who they are in the Masiello Era to cause turnovers and give them easy opportunities in transition.
But even that wasn’t enough as eventually it was the Red Foxes who left Draddy Gym victorious for just the second time in 15 years (and third in 21 tries ever) with a 75-70 victory, just their second of the young season (2-4).
It is Manhattan’s first 0-2 start in MAAC play since Barry Rohrssen’s final season in 2010-11 when it finished 3-15 in conference (6-25 overall). Of course, Masiello has made a name as a magician of sorts, taking virtually that same roster and finishing 21-13 (12-6 MAAC) the next season and really never looking back since. At about this same point last season, the Jaspers appeared to be near last rites, starting 2-7. Manhattan was only 5-4 in the MAAC when it was blown out by Quinnipiac on Jan. 23, but by March, of course, it was Masiello and the Jaspers cutting down the nets in Albany.
So based on the tried and true judicial marker of precedent alone, it’s tough to write off Manhattan, even at 1-5. But if he can turn this team into a MAAC title contender, it may be Masiello’s greatest piece of abstract artwork yet.
Consider that the Marist team that Manhattan lost to Sunday at home had been beaten by Iona 101-66 in Poughkeepsie in a contest that had a 26-point margin by halftime. Now the Gaels have set a pretty high bar, but while that was happening, the Jaspers were getting trounced 89-54 by Siena in a foul-plagued contest. Those same Saints lost to Saint Peter’s (picked ninth in the preseason MAAC poll; Marist was 10th) Sunday and never led in the contest.
“Their style is so unique,” Marist coach Mike Maker said. “It’s exhausting to play against, it’s even exhausting to coach against. Steve does such a good job with his group. We hope to be relevant in this league sometime soon just like Manhattan has been since Steve came here.”
Comparing scores is one thing, but looking at rosters is another. For the second straight game Sunday, the Jaspers dressed only nine players and that may be their team for the foreseeable future. Like most Division I teams, Manhattan’s picture on its website contains 15 players: 13 scholarship players and a couple of walk-ons. But things started to go wrong when Cincinnati transfer Jermaine Lawrence tested positive for marijuana (once or twice depending on what side you take) and was suspended for half the season, eventually deciding to cut his losses and leave Manhattan altogether. Former MAC Rookie of the Year and Ball State transfer Zavier Turner could be a MAAC future star, but he won’t be eligible until next season. Sophomore Calvin Crawford (at 6’8”) will help with some much-needed length, but his hand injury will keep him out for about another month. Even the walk-ons are banged up, Matt Maloney (who played decent minutes earlier in the season) and Jason Camus are out long-term. Fellow freshman Samson Usilo is also out indefinitely, which 15-6 = 9 and other than possibly Crawford, that might be it for 2015-16.
Five of the nine remaining have played in all six games this season and logged major minutes Sunday – Shane Richards, Rich Williams, Zane Waterman, Thomas Capuano, and Tyler Wilson. Senior point guard RaShawn Stores missed the first three games, but appears healthy now, scoring a career-high 18 against Marist in the loss (“RaShawn is probably the winningest player in this league right now. He’s a warrior, he’s a winner,” Masiello said).
Those six should be the core of Manhattan’s team going forward. Richards, with all kinds of pressure as a senior leader, is shooting just 30% from three (1-6 Sunday, 12-40 for season), and that should improve. Stores took some of the heat off by shooting 5-9 from behind the arc, and Williams scored a game-high 22 points. But neither Stores nor Williams has averaged more than 6.2 points per game in any of their five combined seasons in Riverdale. Freshman Thomas Capuano can shoot a little, but asking him to be a primary focus of the offense this early in his career might be difficult. Wilson is an extremely valuable defender and pass-first point guard; he had 10 assists against one turnover in 30 minutes Sunday, but took only two shots and didn’t score. He has two three-pointers in his three-year Manhattan career.
“For me, it’s just about getting our team better,” Masiello said. “I thought we did a lot of good things today, we outrebounded them (28-24), Zane Waterman did an especially good job on the glass (10 rebounds). We got 18 assists, but we had 20 turnovers against a team that doesn’t pressure and that’s just us being careless with the basketball. Conference game, non-conference game, it’s just basketball. This isn’t a top 25 league where you have to worry top 20 wins, you’re playing for a 13 to 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That’s what this league has been for over 20 years, we’ve had a couple 12’s in there. Really, at the end of the day, it comes down to three days in March. Obviously, conference games mean more, but we have to get ready for February and March, which we’ll do.”
But Manhattan’s biggest problem at this point is in the paint. Without Emmy Andujar and Ashton Pankey (19.2 and 19.6% defensive rebounding rate last season, respectively with Crawford finishing third in limited minutes), Lawrence was expected to fulfill his potential and maybe be an All-MAAC type player. However, he’s now gone. Masiello has gone with Waterman at center, and he is 6’9”, but in the middle of Manhattan’s trademark aggressive zone, he’s not really a rim protector.
The Jaspers started Nigerian Ak Ojo Sunday, and Ojo has the potential to be that intimidating force, but he has been injured, too (Masiello said he has barely practiced all season) and has to adjust to this level of play at both ends of the floor. That leaves junior Carlton Allen and sophomore Samson Akilo. Allen did get six rebounds in 13 minutes Sunday (a career-high) and has the size at 6’10” and 240 pounds, but appeared in only 21 games last season, averaging only seven minutes per outing. Akilo is 6’8”, but got just one minute Sunday and has played just 11 minutes this season.
Where that has shown up in the numbers so far this season is in the defensive eFG%. After taking over a team that was 311th and 275th, respectively, nationally in defensive efficiency and eFG% in 2010-11 under Rohrssen, Masiello’s first three seasons (starting in 2011-12) saw the Jaspers 66th, 74th, and 28th in eFG%. They dropped to 131st last season, but were considerably better as the season progressed, punctuated by holding high-flying Iona to just 43.2 eFG% in the MAAC final.
This season, Manhattan is still forcing plenty of turnovers (6th, 25.6%) and fouling a lot (350th), but neither of those are new. Conceding a whopping 58.3 eFG% is, however, 10% more than last season and 13% more than two seasons ago. Marist shot at a 61.6 eFG% clip (and 1.10 points per possession) on Sunday.
You can add in the fact that as the two-time defending champs, Manhattan (picked third in the preseason poll) won’t get much sympathy from their opponents, most of whom the Jaspers conquered on their way to the top.
But Masiello might be the last guy to ask for sympathy. And, even with seemingly everything going against the Jaspers, he’ll channel his inner Gene Kranz and attempt to turn a potential disastrous Manhattan season into his finest hour.
“I can take last year’s blueprint, I can take my second year here (2012-13) as a blueprint,” Masiello said. “We’ve done it a lot of different ways. We’ve come out and dominated from start to finish in Year 3 (2013-14). Last year, we struggled, starting off 2-7. Listen, it’s a process. That’s what this level is. It’s a grind every game. There’s a lot of great coaches in our league. We know how to do it. It’s a matter of us practicing and doing it. When we do that, we’ll be who we’re supposed to be. Right now, we’re not, but we will be.”
And most of the MAAC knows enough than to doubt him on December 6th.