It’s been quite a while since the prospect of meaningful March basketball looked so bleak for the Manhattan College men’s basketball team. Under head coach Steve Masiello, March has been the month the Jaspers have played their best basketball and have made many memorable moments.
With three appearances in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament championship game in the past five seasons, including a pair of tournament championships and two trips to the NCAA Tournament, March has been like a close friend for the Jaspers.
But in a season that has seen Manhattan graduate two program stalwarts in RaShawn Stores and Shane Richards, then lose the services of top returning senior Rich Williams for the entire season with a knee injury, it has been one long disappointing ride for the Jaspers.
The Jaspers staggered to a 10-21 finish this season, including a 5-15 mark in the MAAC. A very un-Manhattan-like season, for sure. But to add insult to injury, the Jaspers, who finished tied with Marist in the conference, even lost the coin flip to decide who would be seeded 10th and 11th in this weekend’s MAAC Tournament in Albany. The Jaspers are now the 11th seed and will face No. 6 Rider in their tournament opener Thursday night at 9 p.m.
“Any time you go into a year and your best player isn’t there, it makes it difficult,” Masiello said. “Obviously, not having Rich made this a very challenging year in a different way, in that most years we probably could have survived his injury because we always have so many guys returning. But we had so many new guys, and to not have a guy like Rich early in the year to set a tone and how things are done, it definitely hurt us. It definitely made it more challenging.”
The Jaspers, as usual, also constructed a very competitive schedule this season, games against such national heavyweights as West Virginia and Florida State, currently No. 12 and 17 in the Associated Press Top 25 basketball poll. It was another contributing factor into the Jaspers dismal season.
“Our schedule was difficult. When all was said and done we wound up playing two top 20 teams and Bucknell, who went on to win the Patriot League and Winthrop, who is tops in the Big South. So probably in our non-conference [portion of the schedule] we played probably six NCAA Tournament teams,” Masiello said. “And also the MAAC this year was kind of a senior-dominated league. St. Peter’s has a ton of seniors and so does Iona, Siena and Monmouth so with having a young team and with a lot of guys not having been part of the program, outside of Zane [Waterman], Calvin [Crawford] and Tyler [Wilson], it definitely posed challenges for us.
“But I’ll say this: I don’t feel like a 10-21 team, I don’t feel like an 11th seed,” Masiello continued. “I don’t feel that way, we don’t act that way, we don’t prepare that way and we don’t practice that way. There’s no difference than the past years. The thing that’s different is the results. The results aren’t where we want them to be.”
So the question facing the Jaspers now is this: Can a team with so much youth and new faces turn the page on a frustrating regular season and surprise teams in the MAAC Tournament?
Even Masiello isn’t sure what to expect.
“I don’t know. I think this group is different in that sense,” Masiello said. “I think things bother this group. I think in the past guys like RaShawn Stores could just turn that switch on and with this group I don’t know if there are guys that can turn on that switch. That is some of the things we’ve talked about and that’s what we’re hoping for and we want. And I think some of these guys, and I don’t mean it in a bad way, they worry about the wrong things. We know we’ve had a bad year but we could make things better this weekend by winning the tournament and I don’t know if all my guys get that.”
The Jaspers split the two-game seasons series with Rider, winning 76-73 at Draddy Gym on Jan. 13 and losing, 93-82, at Rider on Feb. 22. So what does Manhattan have to do in order to make some noise in Albany this weekend?
“You’ve got to have a little luck but more than anything you’ve got to have great togetherness,” Masiello said. “You’ve got to be able to stay together and really play through adversity and if we do that we’ll give ourselves a chance. We can’t let adversity split us, that’s the one thing we can’t do. But because it’s a bunch of new guys playing together for the first time, that’s been a challenge this year for sure.”
They are a long shot for sure to come home with the MAAC championship hardware for the third time in five seasons. But stranger things have happened. It’s why March is called the Month of Madness.
“Do I think we can win this tournament? Absolutely, I think we can win this tournament,” Masiello said. “Do we have to do things more consistently? Yeah we’re going to have to. But can we do all that? Yeah, we can.”