34 Teams in 34 Days: Manhattan

Manhattan

Outlook: Even in this day and age, going from worst to champion is extremely difficult to pull off, yet Steve Masiello’s Jaspers have the veteran pieces to make a run at the NCAA tournament. Of course, Manhattan needs good health, something that has eluded them of late.

Who’s in: Pauly Paulicap (PF); Warren Williams (PF); Ebube Ebube (F); Nehemiah “Bud” Mack (G); Patrick Strzala (G)

Who’s out: Tyler Wilson (G); Zavier Peart (PF); Ahmed Ismail (C)

Key Non-Conference games: at Fordham (11/26); at the Basketball Hall of Hame Belfast Classic in Northern Ireland (12/1, 12/2); at Seton Hall (12/23)

Sometimes all it takes is one or two players to convert a losing roster into a winning one. If that sounds too simplistic, please refer to the Bryant Bulldogs circa 2012-13 as exhibit A. I interviewed Tim O’Shea for the first time in the summer leading up to that season after his Bulldogs came off a putrid 2-28 campaign. The team had dropped 19 games by double figures and wasn’t thought of at all as an up-and-coming NEC contender.

O’Shea made his “we can possibly contend next season” case to me that summer afternoon, even though I was skeptical. Sophomores Dyami Starks and Joe O’Shea were eligible to join a standout group of Alex Francis, Frankie Dobbs and Corey Maynard, but what ended up transpiring that season was rather stunning. A team that previously went 1-17 in the league churned out 12 conference wins and impressive non-conference road victories over Boston College and Lehigh. And all it took were two players to turn the roster from cellar dweller to contender.

Obviously, the parallels between Bryant and Manhattan in the present day are far from perfect, yet it’s plausible to believe red-shirt senior wing Rich Williams is the missing puzzle piece for Steve Masiello’s Jaspers. In actuality, you don’t have to go very far – the 2013-14 season – to find a Manhattan team that went from mediocre to very good. That season George Beamon returned to a veteran laden Jaspers squad and, well, the rest was history.

Masiello isn’t ready to make that comparison, though, since in his words the current roster hasn’t really proven anything. Other than Rich Williams, whose impact was somewhat minimal, there isn’t a current player who was even on Manhattan’s 2014-15 NCAA tournament team.

Last season Manhattan was poised to return to the top of the MAAC standings after a mediocre campaign, yet an untimely injury essentially sapped the moxie and experience from a roster that desperately needed it from Williams. What transpired was another disappointing campaign, Masiello’s second in as many seasons, that led to a tied-for-tenth finish in the MAAC regular season. More surprising was Manhattan’s finishing last among league mates in offensive efficiency (97 points scored per 100 possessions) for the first time in Masiello’s tenure.

Amid the disappointment, however, were positive signs the Jaspers could hang their hat on for the future. After navigating through a bumpy freshman season, guard Aaron Walker finished strong by registering averages of 15.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.5 spg and 53.8% shooting in the Jaspers last four games. Masiello has called him one of the most talented players he has ever coached, high praise from a person who’s led Manhattan to the NCAA tournament twice; therefore Walker emerging into an above average regular seems reasonable.

Another major positive last season was addition of Ball State transfer Zavier Turner. The combo guard was efficient in his first season in the green and white, posting the team’s second best offensive efficiency (105.3) thanks to a pristine assist rate and an uncanny knack of getting to the charity stripe. A backcourt featuring himself and Walker gives Masiello two versatile guards who can not only score but distribute the basketball as well.

Senior Zane Waterman had an impressive enough junior season to take MAAC preseason first team honors last week – a 110.6 offensive rating and nationally ranked rebounding rates are nothing to scoff, especially when his team struggled offensively. Another season of maturity and more frontcourt pieces around him should result in a productive senior campaign.

Along with Waterman, Crawford will serve as a pivotal veteran big man who provides Masiello with versatility at the four or five. Pair that leading group with Rich Williams, and it’s easy to understand why pundits believe this Jasper roster has top 3 potential, even after winning just 10 games in the season prior.

Inserting Williams at the three, his natural position, also allows the Jaspers to push Thomas Capuano into a less significant role, where the guard could be the eighth or ninth man off the bench. Masiello can do that because of a talented incoming class, led by two players who are more defined as centers than anyone, Waterman included, on last year’s roster.

Pauly Paulicap has been forecast to become the next Rhamel Brown, and with good reason. The shot blocking, hyper athlete will make his presence felt around the rim and gives Manhattan the interior dominance the program has lacked since Brown’s graduation. Freshman Warren Williams, a local product from St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey, is a big-bodied center who can score with his back to the basket.

Additionally, 6-7 freshman Edube Edube adds depth at the three and four behind the starting group of Williams and Waterman, while sharpshooting guard Patrick Strzala gives Manhattan some much-needed 3-point scoring off the bench. The Jaspers struggled in that department last season, making just 32.8% percent of their behind the arc takes.

In summary, this appears to be a team that will compete for a championship, yet as stated earlier the team as currently constructed has yet to prove anything. A challenging and intriguing out of conference schedule will serve as a useful litmus test. It’s anyone’s guess, but the insertion of Williams should push everyone’s importance back a notch, allowing most of the roster to slide into their respective roles. If this occurs, Iona will have a tough underdog coming after them in the race for a MAAC championship.

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