Only three months into his first season as a head coach, Steve Masiello has already surpassed last year's win total at Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of The Journal News)
Seven college basketball programs exist at the Division I level inside the city limits of New York, New York. Of the seven, the winningest school this year is not the big name (St. John's) or the reigning NCAA Tournament team; (Long Island University) nor is it the academically acclaimed. (Columbia) It isn't the up-and-comer (Fordham) or Staten Island's finest (Wagner) either, nor is it my primary employer. (St. Francis College)
Twelve games into the season, Manhattan College stands 8-4; two wins ahead of last season's 6-25 campaign that cost former coach Barry Rohrssen his job, and the Jaspers enter tonight's contest with George Mason on a five-game winning streak that hardly anyone imagined would happen so soon under first-year coach Steve Masiello.
At just 34, Masiello is the ninth-youngest head coach in Division I; and has already changed the culture of a program seven years removed from their most recent NCAA Tournament appearance, one in which the Jaspers advanced to the round of 32 after upsetting Florida as a No. 12 seed. A former Rick Pitino assistant at Louisville, Masiello made no secret of the fact that his mentor and father figure would have a huge influence on the team. However, as much as Manhattan is reminiscent of the man who won a national championship at Kentucky in 1996 before taking over the Cardinals; Masiello is actually more of a mirror image of another former employer of his who also overachieved at a young age, whether the coach wants to admit it or not.
In 1999, Manhattan made a coaching change after John Leonard was dismissed, bringing in 36-year-old Bobby Gonzalez. Gonzalez had previously been an assistant to Pete Gillen at Xavier, Providence and Virginia, becoming one of the nation's best recruiters that most fans had unfortunately never heard of. When he got to Riverdale, critics and experts doubted Bobby's ability to get the job done. Seven years and four postseason appearances later; (two NCAA Tournaments and two NIT berths) with a staff that included none other than a young Steve Masiello, who was hired shortly after he graduated from the University of Kentucky, Gonzalez turned Manhattan into a mid-major powerhouse before leaving for Seton Hall, where he gradually improved the Pirates with an increasing win total every year over four seasons before being unceremoniously (and wrongfully when you really think about it) fired in March of 2010.
Just two weeks ago, I got to see Manhattan for the first time this season when they hosted Tom Pecora and Fordham at Draddy Gym. Having covered Manhattan's coaching search in a groundbreaking and unorthodox way over the month that it was active, (the much-celebrated #mcmbbcoachingsummit on Twitter) I paid particular attention to Masiello to see just how much of a Pitino clone he really was on the bench. Only several minutes transpired before I noticed Masiello displayed characteristics similar to his former mentor. From pacing the sideline enthusiastically to displaying the same demonstrative love for the game that most people mistake for unnecessary theatrics; Masiello is essentially recapturing the magic Gonzalez created in the wake of Fran Fraschilla's departure in Riverdale, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
In a conference where both of the top teams (Iona and Fairfield) are currently experienced, Masiello is a young influence on an even younger team that will eventually be the class of the MAAC before the core of the Jaspers graduate. Masiello has already surprised the nation by overachieving; but through no fault of his own, he has surprised in another way by turning back the clock to a coach who put the Manhattan program on the map as opposed to the big name who won a national championship.
Steve Masiello really is a lot like Rick Pitino, and I will not deny that; but whether or not people recognize it, the coach's style resembles Bobby Gonzalez just a little more. Given how the Gonzalez era turned out in Riverdale, Jaspers fans should appreciate what they are blessed to call their own this season because it is the start of deja vu in the northwest corner of the Bronx. Trust me when I say that it will not be long before Manhattan College is back in the spotlight again.