Steve Masiello, like many mid-major coaches, often talks of games not truly being important until the conference tournament can at least be seen on the horizon.
So a non-conference game on Dec. 9 doesn’t exactly qualify, even if it is the Battle of the Bronx against rival Fordham, a team that throttled the Jaspers last season at Rose Hill.
But if you could make an exception to that rule, this might be it. Manhattan, after a 13-18 campaign where it never did find the answers in 2015-16, came in at 2-7 Saturday night. And while those two MAAC championship trophies from the two seasons prior are still shiny, this is not a program that wants to go back to MAAC mediocrity anytime soon, on any level.
Even though Manhattan had lost four straight, Draddy Gym was full and loud for rival Fordham, and the Jaspers not only want the fans, but might need them to come back later in the season to help them make a run in the MAAC where they’ve already dug a hole for themselves with an 0-2 start.
Manhattan made several mistakes, turned the ball over 25 times, and shot only 9-27 on two-point shots. But they gutted their way to a 60-53 victory in which they dominated the second half, particularly on the defensive end, where they struggled so much more than previous Masiello teams at Manhattan last season
“This was a great win for our program. We were on a four-game losing streak and two of them were devastating heartbreakers (Canisius and Morgan State),” Masiello said. “We needed a win. And anytime you beat a rival like Fordham, it means a lot. I think we have the best crowd in New York. I’ll put Draddy up against anybody. When this place gets rocking, it’s the real deal. Tonight was a great college basketball atmosphere anywhere.”
Even Fordham coach Jeff Neubauer was impressed by the Draddy crowd, a testament to a pair of former Fordham employees, new Manhattan Athletic Director Marianne Reilly and President Brennan O’Donnell.
“I tip my hat to the Manhattan crowd,” Neubauer said. “We played this game last year at Rose Hill and there was no one there. Obviously, (new Manhattan Athletic Director) Marianne Reilly worked with us at Fordham and has done an outstanding job, because that was a great crowd.”
It remains to be seen what kind of long-term impact Saturday’s win will have, much of which will depend on the health of senior Rich Williams, who Manhattan hopes will return when MAAC play resumes next month. They face a difficult task in playing Florida State next week, and still play Eastern Kentucky, who beat them badly last season before Christmas.
But, as Masiello said, this was a big win for Manhattan.
What else did we learn at sold-out Draddy Gym?
- Fordham and its somewhat bizarre reliance on half-court turnovers
When you look at the Rams’ statistics, it forces an involuntary squinting more times than not. Neubauer’s system is somewhat unique and it certainly shows this season. Fordham is currently second in forcing turnovers nationally (29.5%), and if it weren’t for outrageous West Virginia (34.7%) on pace to shatter records, would lead easily. In fact, if they can keep that pace, 29.5% would be the best mark since Air Force used a similar system under Joe Scott to win the Mountain West regular season title by two games and get a No. 11 NCAA seed in 2003-04.
(But “Press” Virginia under Bob Huggins does just that, harassing teams for 94 feet, just like most teams that cause plenty of turnovers, like Manhattan, for instance, who ironically played West Virginia and turned the ball 40 ?!? times).
That’s probably what Neubauer eventually envisions: a slow-paced game (Fordham is currently 308th in adjusted tempo), but extremely aggressive overplaying half-court defense that causes mistakes and frustration for opponents. Like Scott, Neubauer is going to be at a disadvantage recruiting in his conference against teams like Dayton, VCU, and even schools like Rhode Island. And let’s remember, Fordham has posted just one winning Atlantic-10 record in two decades, so thinking outside the box is probably encouraged here.
Yet, even with all that eye-popping turnover causing, Fordham (5-6) has lost five straight and conference play hasn’t even begun. The Rams are 319th in defensive eFG% (56.5%) and 334th (57.5%) in two-point defense, so that explains some of the dilemma, being so aggressive is going to make you give up easy shots. Fordham caused 16 turnovers in the first half (45.7%), but eventually Manhattan caught on a bit, finishing with 25 for the game (still 34.7%).
Of course, overall, maybe the problem is not the defense, currently 117th in efficiency, which would be its best since that lone winning Atlantic-10 season in 2007-08. Saturday, Manhattan finished with 0.83 points per possession so it certainly wasn’t the issue.
“I did tell our team in the locker room after the game that defensively our guys did what was asked of them,” Neubauer said. “Our defense was good enough to win the game. We certainly continue to struggle offensively. I really thought this game would be good for our team because we knew what defense was coming and we had a good feel for what we had to do, but we were not able to convert.”
2) An autopsy of Manhattan’s 2015-16 defensive effort
Manhattan's entire team goes out for the captain meeting, which is different: pic.twitter.com/g1KW81Nxjy
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) December 10, 2016
Masiello’s teams at Manhattan have finished 103rd, 42nd, 47th (MAAC champions), 119th (champions again with a late surge), and … 206th last season. But what happened? The aggressive defense and causing of turnovers were always there, as were the negatives like fouling more than most teams.
But focus in on one number: effective FG%. Manhattan was 288th (52.2%) last season after ranking 66th, 74th, 28th, and 131st the previous four seasons. On two-point shots, last season was 320th (52.9%), with the previous numbers 61st, 29th, 32nd, and 170th.
The obvious answer is a lack of a rim protector. The teams that were most successful had the likes of Rhamel Brown, Emmy Andujar, and Ashton Pankey, the latter two still around for the second MAAC title. Last season? Calvin Crawford and Zane Waterman tried their best, but it just wasn’t the same. At times, Rich Williams found himself in the middle of the Manhattan zone at 6’5″.
Waterman and Crawford are a year older, and Masiello hopes 7’2” Egyptian Ahmed Ismail and Zavier Peart (who was dressed, but didn’t play) can at least make things difficult at the rim for opponents. Saturday, Fordham was held to a 37.0 eFG% and 11-35 on two-pointers (as well as 0.74 ppp). If they can do that, they’ll be a factor in the MAAC by the end of the season.
“We played very well against Morgan State and Canisius. What happens with us right now because (we have new players to Manhattan), when we miss some shots or have some bad plays, we deflate,” Masiello said. “What we’ve been working on is keeping our energy where it needs to be because our offense will come. If you’re betting against our offense, you better know what you’re doing. I have great faith in this personnel as long as we’re healthy.”
Said Neubauer: “The biggest difference was that they didn’t foul us. We felt the best way to attack them was to get to the rim, and we just weren’t able to score against their bigger players.”
3) Zavier Turner needs to lead the way
Doc Johnson "Most Outstanding Player" Zavier Turner! pic.twitter.com/2wPGAg9yaR
— Manhattan Jaspers (@GoJaspers) December 11, 2016
Turner was the “Doc” Johnson MVP with 15 points and five rebounds, but the transition from Ball State to Manhattan floor leader has been a little rough for Turner this season, and surely the losing hasn’t helped. But Masiello hopes he turned the corner on Saturday.
“After Morgan State (Tuesday), he (Turner) was in a bad way with me,” Masiello said. “He knows that. He wasn’t playing tonight and Tyler came to me and we had a talk and I respect Tyler. It had nothing to do with his play. He’s got to learn how to lead this organization every day, on the court, off the court, what we do, how we talk, what we wear. He’s responsible for that. That’s something that we talked about when he transferred here and that’s why he came here, and if you’re not going to do, then he can go back to where he came from. We’re going to butt heads, but I love him.”
Said Turner: “It’s so much fun playing with the group of guys we have and playing for Coach Mas. We really have a brotherhood. We have a brand, and we’re protecting that brand. Hopefully this is a turnaround for us and we can get it rolling from here on out.”