If you’re a college basketball fan, there is nothing quite like March.
Conference tournaments. Win-or-go-home games. Selection Sunday. The NCAA Tournament — all in the same month? What’s not to like?
But if you’re a coach or player who lives and dies with each win or loss, March can be the cruelest of months. That’s where Manhattan College head coach Steve Masiello finds himself today. After an up-and-down regular season — not surprising given the number of freshmen and sophomores comprising his roster — followed by a two-game stay in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in Albany last weekend, the Jaspers’ season has been put to bed, and Masiello now is living in his own personal hell.
Basketball is what he lives for, and it’s his love of the game that will lead him to miss all the madness of March.
“I’ll walk away from it now,” Masiello said after the Jaspers’ season ended in a 69-65 overtime loss to No. 2 seed Canisius in the quarterfinals of the MAAC tournament. “It hurts too much to see it. It hurts too much to see other teams living out your dream.”
After seventh-seeded Manhattan posted a 57-53 victory over No. 10 Fairfield in a first-round game, the Jaspers gave Canisius all it could handle before coming up short in overtime. The Jaspers appeared to be on their way to the tournament’s first upset when they led the Golden Griffs 32-25 at the half and boosted their lead to 37-25 early in the second half.
In fact, Manhattan held the lead for all but about a minute and some change of the game, with Canisius finally catching up to the Jaspers in the final moments of regulation before pulling away in the extra session. That is what made the loss all the more painful for Masiello and Manhattan.
“Obviously we didn’t shoot it great in the second half, and they did,” Masiello said. “But we had a point-blank layup to win the game (by Warren Williams), and you had two free throws to win the game (by Tykei Greene) with 11 seconds to play, and we didn’t capitalize on either of those.”
Masiello said his freshmen will now have to suffer through some short-term pain in order to reap long-term gains.
“I’m a firm believer that you have to suffer in life,” Masiello said. “You have to go through (stuff) in order to have success. I’m a big believer that if we didn’t lose in the first round of the tournament in my first year (2012) and if we don’t go to the finals and lose by three to Iona in a heartbreaker (in 2013), I don’t think we work that hard the next off-season.
“So I’m OK with this pain. This one hurts a lot. This is one of the worst ones for me by far. But I’m OK with it if it leads to what I think it can.”
What Masiello thinks it can lead to is an extended run of excellence for the Jaspers, similar to their back-to-back MAAC championship runs through the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.
“I wish we won one more game” in the tournament, Masiello said. “But I think for this freshmen group, to go in and win a game and have the No. 2 team on the ropes and take them to overtime, I think that’s a really good journey for these guys to build on.”
The Jaspers will return “our top eight or nine guys” next season, according to Masiello, along with a healthy Pauly Paulicap, the talented junior who missed most of this season due to injuries. Along with a blossoming big man in freshman Warren Williams — who scored 27 points in the loss to Canisius — that should give Manhattan a promising foundation on which to build.
“I love what I have returning, I love what I have sitting out, and I love what I have coming in,” Masiello said. “I love the trajectory of the program. We came up short in the quarterfinals, but we have everyone back, and our kids had a great test. So I think our momentum is moving the needle the right way, and I think in the next 24 months for Manhattan basketball are as big as they’ve ever been over the last 10 years.”