RICHMOND, Ky. – While it’s normally taboo for opposing coaches to engage in lengthy conversations before games, Steve Masiello and Dan McHale were willing to make an exception Tuesday afternoon and sat together like the old friends they are in McHale’s office at McBrayer Arena while their teams went through warmups out on the playing floor.
Why not? Despite the ups and downs that come with being a college basketball head coach, the old friends had beaten the odds. A year apart (Masiello in 1996, McHale in 1997), both came straight out of high school from the New York City metropolitan area to the University of Kentucky, both doing so not necessarily for the change of scenery, but a chance to study for what they hoped to be their chosen profession: basketball coach, which doesn’t exactly rank very high on the areas to ensure gainful employment after college.
What are the chances that a walk-on who rarely saw the floor (Masiello) and a student manager (McHale) from the same program at the same time would go on to become Division I head coaches two decades later? Slim to none, but luckily slim didn’t decide to leave the Big Apple or Lexington.
EKU coach Dan McHale, and Manhattan coach Steve Masiello, face off today in Richmond. . @heraldleader @johnclayiv pic.twitter.com/lUi8ySkvKm
— Mark Cornelison (@markcornelison) December 29, 2015
And so, even on a day where has team committed six turnovers in its first eight possessions, got down 18-0, and trailed by 24 at the half in a 76-64 loss, Masiello – who has been through plenty of peaks and valleys over the past few years – had plenty to be thankful afterward.
“You can’t get too caught up in it,” Masiello said. “I think it’s a great story that two guys 20 years ago kind of went to college for this, and now they’re living out their dreams. So I don’t believe in moral victories, but how many people can say that? This wasn’t for a championship tonight, it wasn’t for a Final Four. So, for a game like this, if you’re going to lose, it might as well be to a friend. I enjoyed today, I thought it was a great day for UK, as strange as it sounds and for Coach Pitino.”
McHale and Masiello were on the same staff for one year at Manhattan (2004-05) when McHale’s meandering career path took him to Riverdale as the Director of Basketball Operations under Bobby Gonzalez. He went back to Louisville after that (after being a graduate assistant from 2002-04) to take a video coordinator position that he kept for two years, which surely didn’t help him pay off too many of his college loans.
But it was Kevin Willard that gave him a big break in 2007, bringing him back to the MAAC with Iona as an assistant. He would stay with Willard for seven seasons, following him to Seton Hall before Pitino’s son Richard made him his top assistant when he got the head job at Minnesota three years ago. When Jeff Neubauer left Eastern Kentucky for Fordham last spring, McHale completed his improbable journey to being a Division I head coach. After today’s win, the Colonels are 9-6 (unbeaten at home), and despite entering Tuesday with a fairly porous defense (340th in KenPom efficiency), he is bringing up-tempo basketball and might have a contender in the OVC by the time March rolls around.
“He’s like my big brother. We’ve known each other 18 years now. I think when I got the job, he saw my roster and didn’t know I had Javontae (Hawkins, 15 points) and Jerelle (Reischel, 26 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists) in my back pocket. I want my program to be what his program is. He’s got back-to-back MAAC championships and done an unbelievable job,” McHale said. “We sat in our office an hour before tipoff and told old stories. I’m really proud of him, I know he’s proud of me. I’m going to be rooting for the Jaspers as the year goes on. I was the Best Man at (Manhattan assistant) Matt Grady’s wedding, there are a lot of connections. It’s been a lot of fun watching him be so successful.”
(Reischel played his high school ball at Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. after moving from Germany, and played at Rice and Rhode Island before ending up at Eastern Kentucky as an unheralded graduate transfer. He is now averaging 20.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, the former tops in the OVC.)
Grady is the same age as McHale and has taken a similar path to being Masiello’s top assistant. He was a student assistant at St. Joseph’s and joined McHale as a graduate assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville from 2001-03. Masiello was also on that staff as well.
This game was the first of a four-year series between the two teams, meaning Eastern Kentucky and McHale will come to Draddy Gym early next season and they will rotate in 2017 and 2018 again, also giving a chance to be seen in the area. One of his biggest recruits for Willard was a local kid named Scott Machado.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the MAAC from my days at Iona,” McHale said. “We try to recruit the east coast as well and we’ll be in New York City playing next year. It’s always great when the OVC plays a parallel team. The MAAC’s a parallel conference and Steve’s won that league the last two years. I wanted to be battle-tested heading into conference play and I knew we wouldn’t face a more aggressive piranha-type defense then what I would see from them today.”
Game 45: Manhattan at Eastern Kentucky – Concluding our brief tour of OVC and non-conference play. #TMMLegacy
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on
Indeed, even though it was probably secondary, there was a game played Tuesday in (the other) Richmond. And we were able to learn some things:
- Manhattan needs to help Shane Richards
McHale’s friendship did not extend to leaving Shane Richards open, as he struggled to get 13 points on 3-9 shooting. Surely, not many MAAC teams are going to leave him open either, he’s shooting just 35.4% from the field and 32.7% from behind the arc. He’s not someone that naturally creates his own shot, and it’s probably going to be up to the other Jaspers to make teams respect them. Rich Williams has done that at times, but he struggled as well Tuesday. It was Zane Waterman who was the biggest beneficiary Tuesday, scoring 23 points, but 21 of them came after halftime when the game was already decided.
“If they’re going to take away your best player, which good teams do, your 2 and 3 options have to step up and do some things,” Masiello said. “Zane Waterman and RaShawn Stores eventually made some shots, and Rich Williams rebounded the ball well even though he had an off shooting night. I didn’t think we did a good job of hurting them for taking away Shane, and that’s something we have to get better at that, but we will. Give them credit for doing what they did defensively.”
Said McHale: “Isaac (McGlone, who did not score) was the MVP of this game and it wasn’t even close. We knew going in we wanted to take Shane Richards out of the game, and Isaac was up to the challenge and he shut him down. That really, really disrupted them.”
2) Other Manhattan issues to address
As was previously alluded to, Manhattan turned the ball over eight times in the first five minutes and subsequently was down 18-0, which was pretty much game over. They finished with only 16, which was right at their overall turnover rate (22.1%), just 329th. When they’ve played well, they’ve taken care of the ball, and that means the Jaspers might have to slow things down, as they did in 2012-13, as Masiello took a banged up team to the MAAC finals that season (and nearly won) with a 316th adjusted tempo. The Jaspers have been 49th and 27th the last two years, but that may not be optimal with the lack of depth and personnel they have this season
“If you look back at my teams, I’ve never played guys 37 minutes, and I’ve had to, and that’s been tough,” Masiello said. “We’re not playing our true style of play, and that’s not an excuse, but we have to adjust to that a little bit.”
At the other end, Manhattan is still 321st in eFG% defense (55.4%) and even worse on two-pointers (56.7%, 340th), which makes some sense when you consider Jermaine Lawrence and Carlton Allen are both gone. But can it be fixed? Samson Akilo starts and helps defensively, but did not take a shot in 11 minutes Tuesday, and has taken only six all season and has just six rebounds.
That leaves Zane Waterman or Rich Williams in the middle, which is not natural for either and exposes them to foul trouble. Even in the MAAC, it will take all of Masiello’s (and Grady’s) coaching acumen to figure out how to solve that problem the rest of the way.
(Freshman Ak Ojo, who is still out injured, could be a big part of that solution as well going forward.)
3) Can Manhattan contend?
Normally a 3-8 team that’s 285th in KenPom, already 0-2 in the MAAC, and missing as many pieces as the Jaspers are could be counted out, but in addition to the two consecutive titles, the example of the 2012-13 team comes to mind. Of course, that team had Rhamel Brown and accordingly finished 29th nationally in two-point defense (43.2%), which allowed them to win MAAC Tournament games 55-52 and 60-42 (and a regular season contest 34-31).
But if history is any guide, the Jaspers will figure out a way to somehow be a factor by March.
“I don’t believe in moral victories,” Masiello said. “If they didn’t fight back, they wouldn’t be coming back. That’s kind of a given with us. That’s something that we’ve hung our hats on since I’ve been there. We don’t really worry about the score up or down. That being said, it’s good to see our kids be resilient like that, especially with what’s ahead of us.”