Friday, March 21, 2014

In Arena Full Of Stars, Masiello And Jaspers Shine Brightest Of All

Even in defeat, Steve Masiello showcased his talent on NCAA Tournament stage, emerging as national superstar after his Manhattan team pushed Louisville to limit. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

When he was hired three years ago to lead Manhattan College out of a five-year morass into which it had fallen under former coach Barry Rohrssen, Steve Masiello wasted little time injecting his energy and passion into the New York college basketball landscape.

"We're going to create a brand," the 36-year-old gushed, "and it's going to be the best in the city."

Even Masiello himself may have to marvel at the job he has done in validating the enthusiastic boast he made in April of 2011, when he returned to Riverdale, where he cut his teeth in the coaching ranks as an assistant on the dominant Bobby Gonzalez teams that took the MAAC; and eventually, the nation by storm in the mid-2000s following a six-year stint under a man who may as well be considered a second father to him: Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, for whom Masiello played at Kentucky and even served under as a New York Knicks ball boy in his youth while growing up in White Plains, where he now resides.

Hardly anyone could have envisioned such a meteoric and marked rise at any program in such a short amount of time, never mind Manhattan, who turned to Masiello after battling through a 6-25 season in 2010-11, one that saw Rohrssen dismissed after five years as the successor to Gonzalez, who left for Seton Hall in 2006. One year later, Masiello engineered the biggest turnaround in the nation, going 21-13 in his maiden voyage at the helm, reaching the Tournament with a young team paced by a pair of sophomores in Michael Alvarado and Rhamel Brown, not to mention a dynamic scorer in junior guard George Beamon.

Masiello's second season at the helm was much more challenging, having to overcome the loss of Beamon to a severely sprained ankle that cost the Roslyn native all but four games in a 14-18 campaign that also saw Alvarado miss a couple of games down the stretch. Regardless, the young coach's gift of bringing out the absolute best in his players paid off as the Jaspers peaked at the right time, hitting their best stride in mid-February and going on an improbable run to the MAAC championship, where Manhattan lost a heartbreaking battle to conference kingpin Iona, only falling short by three points in a spirited 60-57 contest.

However, as the old adage has proven on many an occasion in life, the third time truly was the charm.

It all clicked for Manhattan early and often, starting first with a thrilling double-overtime victory to open the season at La Salle, who had come off an appearance in the Sweet 16 one year ago. The Jaspers' winning ways only intensified from there, winning seven of their nine nonconference games and dominating the early part of the MAAC season before an uncharacteristic two-game losing streak to Quinnipiac, who briefly took Beamon out of commission before he returned two weeks later, and Iona. Manhattan only lost twice more after that, ending the regular season with resilient home victories against Iona and Canisius before rolling through the conference tournament, where the Jaspers finally got the better of Tim Cluess' Gaels for the right to participate in the program's first NCAA Tournament since 2004.

After defeating Iona in overtime three weeks ago, Masiello mentioned the quality of the MAAC, boldly stating "if you put one of those teams in a 13/4 matchup, that 4 seed's in trouble." As it turned out, Manhattan was selected as a No. 13 seed in this year's field of 68, facing reigning national champion Louisville and Masiello's mentor Rick Pitino. Even better, the young coach turned out to be prophetic.

Taking the opening tip as 15 1/2-point underdogs against a Cardinals team led by Brooklyn's Russ Smith, Manhattan was thought to be a team that would test Louisville early into the second half before giving way down the stretch. What actually happened, however, was quite the opposite.

Taking advantage of a style he learned from Pitino, Masiello beat his protege and his team at their own game for 38 of the 40 minutes in Orlando last night, flustering the Cardinals with a suffocating press defense and relentless transition game. Manhattan had Louisville on the ropes with less than two minutes remaining, before Luke Hancock reprised his heroics from last year's national championship game with a pair of clutch three-pointers that were the difference in a 71-64 Cardinal win. Regardless, the prevailing feeling, and deservedly so, was that Masiello; a man who has never been afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve while coaching, got the better of the man who taught him most of what he knows, earned the right to exit the Amway Center with his head held high, having gone the distance against a legend even if this defeat ranks among the hardest of a young career that is destined for a stardom perhaps just as big as that of the man who helped enhance it.

"That's one of the best coaching jobs I've seen in my 39 years," Pitino told TNT sideline reporter Kristine Leahy on national television immediately after the final buzzer sounded in what will now be known as Masiello's breakout to the masses. "It was awesome. They did everything fantastic."

For those who know Masiello, this comes as no surprise. After all, if one is to observe him, he puts his heart and soul into everything he does, be it a walkthrough prior to a game or even a postgame press conference, where he frequently embraces the media fortunate enough to cover his team, connecting with every single individual and making them feel as if they, too, are a part of his team, a mutual appreciation that is extremely hard to find in such a fast-paced and lucrative industry like the college basketball world.

Three years after he was introduced as the heir apparent, Steve Masiello put on a coaching clinic at the highest level and biggest stage possible, and while his team may not have been rewarded with a win, he and the Jaspers will be remembered for all eternity as the scrappy bunch who stood tall against the kings of the jungle and lived to tell about a performance that defined heart, soul, and the three-letter mantra that the coach preached throughout the season as he showed his masterpiece to the world:

T.O.E. Team over everything.

Masiello even stressed that in his introductory remarks three years ago, when he imparted one more cautionary decree upon those in attendance at Draddy Gymnasium.

"Manhattan basketball is back," he proclaimed. "That's all I know."

No thanks to a special group of players led into battle by an equally special coach.

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