Sunday, March 16, 2014

Manhattan's 2004 Run Still Memorable 10 Years Later

Ten years later, Bobby Gonzalez is still recognized more for 2004 NCAA Tournament run with Manhattan than most other significant accomplishments in his 11-year career. (Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News)

Shortly after 6 p.m. this evening, Manhattan College will hear its name announced by Greg Gumbel as one of the 68 teams participating in the NCAA Tournament, an honor the Jaspers earned by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship this past Monday in a 71-68 victory over local rival Iona at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. It will be Manhattan's first trip to the "Big Dance" since 2004, when current head coach Steve Masiello and director of basketball operations Michael Bramucci were assistant coaches on a Jasper team that was quarterbacked by Luis Flores, the program's all-time leading scorer, to a resounding first-round upset of a nationally-ranked Florida team before a controversial call in the final minute against a Wake Forest team that featured a dynamic freshman point guard named Chris Paul kept Manhattan from reaching its first-ever regional semifinal, which would have been played at the Izod Center in New Jersey against a Saint Joseph's team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation. However, before the Jaspers receive word of their next opponent and challenge, we invite you to join us in reliving their last NCAA Tournament run, one that, in some ways, helped set the table for mid-major Cinderella stories to come.

***

On the heels of a hard-fought loss to Syracuse in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, a game in which the final score did not indicate just how close the battle between Manhattan College and eventual national champion Syracuse was, one in which the Jaspers gave Jim Boeheim and an Orange team led by then-freshman Carmelo Anthony all they could handle and then some, the reigning MAAC champions returned to Riverdale with their heads held high, and most of their key pieces returning for another run to glory.

"It was kind of like a two-year process," head coach Bobby Gonzalez said when recounting the season that made him a household name a decade ago, even long before his departure to Seton Hall. "Going to the NCAA Tournament and playing Syracuse tough, and showing we could hang with a big-time team like that and them going on to win the national championship, I think it kind of gave our kids a sense of understanding 'Hey, you know what? We made the Big Dance, we know what it's like now, we've tasted it,' but now we've got a great team coming back, we've added Peter Mulligan and we've got a chance to be even better next year. Now, what we want to do is try to get back to the tournament and not just be happy to be in it, but actually go back to the tournament and try to win some games, do some damage, and try to hang around for a little while."

Following a 6-3 start to the season, the second half of Manhattan's springboard to their status as one of the nation's premier mid-major programs began with the Jaspers winning their first seven games in MAAC play before a 79-62 loss at Iona. In some cases, a crushing loss to a fierce rival could alter a team's season, but Manhattan showed no effect of such a letdown, winning their next eight, including a BracketBuster victory against a Wisconsin-Milwaukee team that Bruce Pearl had taken to the Sweet 16 one year prior. The Jaspers' final regular season tally was a 22-5 ledger, winning all but two games in league play, good enough to earn a double bye into the MAAC Tournament, where they disposed of Saint Peter's before narrowly defeating Joe Mihalich's Niagara team to successfully defend their crown and reach their second straight NCAA Tournament.

***

Manhattan entered the 2004 NCAA Tournament with not just a chip on their shoulders, but also a magnified hunger to accomplish what everyone in the Jasper program knew was attainable after how hard they had played Syracuse the previous season. All that remained was where they would be seeded and who they would play.

"The year before, we felt like we were better than a 14 seed," Gonzalez recalled of his team's quiet confidence and swagger after where they had ended up in the 2003 bracket. "We felt like this year, we deserved a higher seed, and the committee gave it to us. We were rewarded by making us a 12 seed, and as you know, the 12-5 has always been a popular upset, and I think that kind of fueled us."

Another favorable advantage for Manhattan was their uniqueness for their opponent, who turned out to be the University of Florida.

"When we played Syracuse, Kenny Minor was our point guard," Gonzalez stated, "and he and Carmelo grew up together, and Syracuse knew us. They were an East Coast team, a Big East team that knew that we had beaten Seton Hall, we had beaten St. John's, so we weren't going to sneak up on Syracuse that year; but we felt like Florida, because they were an SEC team from a BCS league and they had not seen us all year, we thought it was a good draw and a good matchup because we felt like maybe we could catch the players sleeping a little bit. Getting the 12 seed, and being in the 12/5 matchup, we felt allowed us a better opportunity than the year before."

***

Manhattan College may have been an underdog going into their matchup with Florida, but in the eyes of critics, experts; and most importantly, a New York media landscape eager to embrace the blue-collar mentality and exciting brand of basketball the Jaspers brought to the court, made them no less equal than the Gators, who were still two years away from winning consecutive national championships and solidifying Billy Donovan's immortal status at an institution that was always regarded as a football school before anything else.

"It was huge," Gonzalez said of the outpouring of support he and his team received in the days leading up to Manhattan's showdown with Florida. "We were like the Cinderella, we were like the VCU and the George Mason, but before social media. Our team was being talked about as the Gonzaga of the East Coast, just doing things that were putting us on a national level." A throng of well-wishers the likes of former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and police commissioner Ray Kelly; both of whom were also Manhattan alumni, extended their best wishes to the Jaspers as they headed to Raleigh, North Carolina to take on a Gator team led by sharpshooter Anthony Roberson and a future NBA All-Star forward by the name of David Lee. Despite the fact that Manhattan was not the only local program in the NCAA Tournament, the Jaspers still took on the role as the New York entry in the field of 65.

"Wagner got in, but we felt like we were kind of representing New York because St. John's, Rutgers, none of those teams got in and we were kind of representing the metropolitan area, and it was literally three or four years after 9/11, so I think there was a lot of publicity and stuff riding on us being New York's team," Gonzalez recalled. "We felt a tremendous sense of responsibility and obligation to represent New York and our league. That NCAA Tournament just propelled us to new heights. It had been ten years since the MAAC had won a game in the Tournament, it had been ten years since Manhattan had won a game in the Tournament, so it was a huge thing for that specific team, and we were carrying the torch for New York City."

However, the number of people pulling for Manhattan was nothing compared to what it would ultimately be when the game was over.

***

MARCH 18, 2004 - Manhattan and Florida were the first two teams to take the court at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, the home of the Carolina Hurricanes, and; ironically, a potential opening round destination for this year's Jasper team. On a day where Hall of Fame coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Lute Olson took center stage during the night session in the capital of the Tar Heel State, New York's Cinderella story would be told in the opening of four chapters of basketball, with a special twist in the plot: March 18 is also Bobby Gonzalez's birthday, and the coach was hoping for an extra scoop of icing on the cake as he turned 41.

"We didn't have to think we were good enough, or wonder whether we were good enough," Gonzalez said when he addressed his players before taking the court. "We knew that we were a championship team, so what I talked about a lot was that we won seven championships in three years, and this was a two-year team that had done incredible things in a two-year period, and going out and playing Florida in a 5/12 matchup on a neutral site shouldn't be as big of a deal to us as it was to everybody else across the country, and this was going to be an opportunity for us to kick the window in and kick the door down. I let our kids know that this was going to be a harder game for Florida than it was going to be for us."

"We had a lot of ways to beat you. We could press, we could play in the halfcourt, we had a special player like Luis Flores that could elevate us like Speedy Claxton had done in the past for Hofstra."

***

The Jaspers drew first blood to start the game, with Peter Mulligan's conventional three-point play serving as the opening salvo before Florida responded with five unanswered points. The Gators' lead would be short-lived, however, as after the two teams traded baskets for several minutes, Manhattan's best player; and arguably the greatest to ever wear the green and white uniform in recent years, put the Jaspers ahead for good just six minutes into the game.

Luis Flores, to this day Manhattan's all-time leading scorer, propelled Jaspers to upset with 26 points against Florida. (Photo courtesy of Manhattan College)

When you look back at some of the standout players to call Draddy Gymnasium their home court over the past two decades, several names will come to mind. Durelle Brown, Keith Bullock, current Manhattan color commentator Chris Williams, and even the present Jasper senior class of George Beamon, Rhamel Brown, and Michael Alvarado are all worthy of inclusion on such a list, but with all due respect to each of the aforementioned names, none match up to the impact that was made in Riverdale; both inside and outside the box scores, by a guard from the Dominican Republic who spoke very little English, but very much on the court.

Luis Flores came to Manhattan by way of Rutgers, as Gonzalez and then-assistant coach Chuck Martin recruited the 6-2 shooting guard in 2000, ultimately landing him as a transfer from Piscataway with three seasons of eligibility remaining. Flores, who was recently inducted into the third class of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Honor Roll that is part of the conference's exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, garnered a long list of accomplishments in his three-year tenure at Manhattan, including becoming not just the school's most prolific scorer; but also a two-time winner of the Haggerty Award, given annually to the best player in the New York metropolitan area, something only eight other players have captured on multiple occasions in the award's 79-year history.

In his senior season, Flores' 24 points per game was nearly double the average of Dave Holmes, the Jaspers' second-leading scorer, with his 68 three-pointers and 37 percent success rate from beyond the arc also serving as team bests. On Manhattan's date with destiny, Flores needed to live up to his regular season credentials in order for his team to have any hope of advancing past the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately, he did not disappoint.

***

Flores only had four points through the first 14 minutes, a major part of why Manhattan was unable to pull away from Florida despite holding a 28-23 lead late in the first half. Exactly 95 seconds after being fouled with 5:07 remaining in the opening stanza, Flores added six more markers to his total, giving him 10 on the day as the Jaspers took a 36-29 lead into the locker room. His work was far from over, however. After the Gators pulled to within three points after making three of their first four shots in the second half, Flores responded with eight points spread over three possessions, stretching Manhattan's lead to 11 points as the Jasper defense held Florida to just six field goals the rest of the way, and just two over the next 11 minutes following Flores' outburst. The Dominican import finished with a game-high 26 points as Manhattan shocked the world with a resounding 75-60 victory over the Gators, at one point earlier in the season the top-ranked team in the nation, to give Gonzalez the best possible present he could get on his 41st birthday, advancing to meet No. 4 seed Wake Forest, who narrowly defeated Virginia Commonwealth University, who would gain notoriety for a future run much like that of the high Manhattan was experiencing at the time.

"It was like we let them out of a cage," Gonzalez gushed when recalling his team's performance against Florida. "They were extremely confident, and they knew that we belonged there. It was everything. Our dream and our goals basically were a reality, we were staring them, and then the roof went off as far as publicity. The next thing you know, Mayor Giuliani is calling my hotel room and they're asking me to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, A-Rod is pumping me for the Miami job, Spike Lee is pumping me for the St. John's job, I'm getting phone calls from all over New York City."

"The publicity and the national notoriety we got was incredible. I can still remember to this day, ten years later, I get stopped in New York City, people recognize me and they tell me where they were, in a bar cheering for us and going berserk when we beat Florida. We were like the little engine that could. I'm still remembered more for what we did at Manhattan than anything else, and that's a pretty special feeling."

***

The love for Manhattan was at an all-time high before the Jaspers' second-round matchup with Wake Forest and beloved head coach Skip Prosser. Bobby Gonzalez had seemingly become the crown prince of New York, with a slew of media obligations highlighted by his appearance on Michael Kay's afternoon drive time sports talk radio show on WEPN in New York, where Kay's engineers celebrated one of the biggest wins in program history with a song entitled "The Jaspers Beat The Gators On Bobby G's Birthday," as well as Flores being asked to appear on the world-famous "Late Show with David Letterman" on CBS. 

Amid the increased attention, the coach found the strength to inspire his team after a pep talk of his own that he received, when Mayor Giuliani called once again, informing Gonzalez that the "city that never sleeps" had a new hero to embrace, and one that was desperately clamored for in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that still rank among the worst tragedies known to the civilized world.

"Success is never final, failure is never fatal. The only thing that counts is courage."
That was the central message in Gonzalez's pregame speech, citing a quote from former British prime minister Winston Churchill as Manhattan took the court at the RBC Center with the hope of furthering its run and returning home to play a regional semifinal in the Meadowlands. Despite trailing 48-35 at halftime, the Jaspers; much as they had a year before against Syracuse, did not back down. A 9-0 run early in the second half pulled Manhattan within four of the Demon Deacons after Jason Wingate's three-pointer with 17:21 remaining in regulation made it 50-46. Manhattan never trailed by more than seven the rest of the way, cutting their deficit to two on several occasions, most notably with 1:53 to go following a layup by Jason Benton, who was one of four Jaspers in double figures. What happened on the ensuing possession ultimately spelled the end of a remarkable run for a team hardly anyone suspected was capable of such. While driving for a layup, Chris Paul appeared to have traveled with 1:34 remaining, which would have given the Jaspers the ball down 80-78. However, Paul's apparent extra step was ignored by the officials and the basket counted, giving Wake Forest a four-point lead. Manhattan hit two free throws shortly thereafter, but Paul's pass to an open Trent Strickland off an inbounds gave the Deacons an 84-80 lead with ten seconds left, ensuring the final margin of victory. In many ways, Paul was a lot like Carmelo Anthony in 2003, an outstanding freshman who was arguably the best player in the NCAA Tournament, and one who unfortunately just so happened to be matched up against Manhattan.

"It was emotional, no question," Gonzalez candidly stated of the postgame atmosphere following the Jaspers' narrow defeat. "I had tears in my eyes. What we had accomplished would never be forgotten. We had done something that would probably be remembered for the rest of our lives. Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) came up to me in the hallway and said we were like the giant slayers, and nobody wanted to play us." Regardless, being able to hang for 40 minutes with a player and team of that level was of extreme consolation to Gonzalez, who walked away with his head held high after his team made a name for itself. "Once it set in that we finally got beat," Gonzalez said, "I told them that I was in the underdogs' locker room and that was where I belonged, and that I wouldn't want to be coaching any other team that day."


***

Manhattan had not been able to return to the NCAA Tournament until this past week, but that did not stop Bobby Gonzalez from becoming a rising star in the coaching industry, nor did it stop the Jaspers from maintaining their position among the MAAC's elite. Before leaving for Seton Hall in 2006, Gonzalez had been recruited by New York Yankees third baseman and Miami native Alex Rodriguez for the then-vacant position at Miami, not to mention being the object of affections for hundreds of alumni at St. John's University, who organized a petition to hire him as the successor to Mike Jarvis. Despite all the overtures, Gonzalez remained at Manhattan, eager to continue the program's run and further establish it as what he, to this day, considers the "Gonzaga of the East Coast." The decision paid off, as two years after their NCAA Tournament for the ages, the Jaspers won another MAAC regular season championship and defeated Maryland in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament on the coach's 43rd birthday, two years to the day of the Florida victory, becoming the first MAAC team to win a game in an Atlantic Coast Conference venue.

"As a coach, I probably was as proud of that team as any team ever," Gonzalez said of his 2005-06 team, his final group with Manhattan before replacing Louis Orr at Seton Hall. "What we had built was so strong, we were so dominant that we believed we were going to win. We basically willed ourselves to beat Maryland, and there were just so many special players, Luis Flores' team, and now you've got Jeff Xavier and a whole new wave of Manhattan players came along and did something special like that, and that's why I was so proud."


"No one expected us to be able to rebuild and go on another run like that, because it was only a mid-major team and no one had really sustained that kind of success. We did it over the course of four straight 20-win seasons, four straight postseasons. We were not a flash in the pan or a one-hit wonder, we really established a level of dominance at the mid-major level that hasn't happened very often, especially in the metropolitan area."
*** 

With Manhattan on the precipice of greatness once more, their status is not lost on Gonzalez, who believes that both the Jaspers and their MAAC rival Iona are capable of having a similar run to postseason greatness, much like his own team did before the runs of George Mason, Davidson, Butler, VCU and Wichita State raised the bar for mid-majors everywhere.

"Fran McCaffery, what he did in his three years at Siena was very similar," Gonzalez advised. "Now, in the metropolitan area, there's some very good coaches, guys like Tim Cluess at Iona, who got Michael Glover and Momo Jones. He's right there knocking on the door, to where if he stays long enough, he's building a mini-dynasty right there. I do believe it can be done, and Iona is certainly close to doing that right now."


***

New York embraces winners, and more so, underdog winners. That was what made Manhattan's 2004 postseason, a run that gets lost in the shuffle since it had come during the infancy of 24-hour sports networks and before the advent of social media, as special as it was. As Bobby Gonzalez himself states, it truly is amazing that for all the negative attention he received for how acrimonious his tenure at Seton Hall ended, he is still approached in public by ordinary people who excitedly tell him where they were and what they were doing in March of 2004, when; for just a few days out of the year, Manhattan College was the center of attention, all the rage in the area, the main event.

It remains to be seen whether or not this year's Jaspers, with the two connections to 2004 on their coaching staff and a group of players strikingly reminiscent of the team Gonzalez fielded, can recapture the magic. However, regardless of whether or not they do, one thing is certain: The fact that, especially after how Bobby Gonzalez's Manhattan team captured the hearts and imaginations of a city that gave New York a winner it could embrace and appreciate when most others would rather not, truly anything is possible.

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