Following MAAC championship and near-upset in NCAA Tournament and tryst with South Florida, Steve Masiello has returned to Manhattan focused on maintaining success in Riverdale. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)
Mid-July is usually not a time when college basketball programs are in midseason form. Between the lull of the offseason and the start of the live evaluation recruiting period, there is not much going on until schedules get released and the calendar draws ever closer to the start of practice in October.
Then again, Manhattan College has never been like everybody else, a uniqueness that has served the Jaspers well over the years as they enter the 2014-15 campaign retooled to some degree, but still a formidable threat to defend their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship, which returned to Riverdale this past March for the first time since 2004.
The Jaspers' latest summer workout this past Wednesday at Draddy Gym confirmed their difference when compared to some other local programs, as the intensity exhibited was reminiscent of an early January MAAC contest.
"They're in the middle of a 'mini-hell week,'" head coach Steve Masiello declared as he greeted us before putting his players through the gamut of on-court drills. "They've been up since 5 a.m. every day this week doing Navy SEAL training and tactics. It's going to mentally grind them out as much as possible."
The struggle will only serve to strengthen Manhattan as the year goes on, especially considering the need to replace seniors George Beamon, Rhamel Brown and Michael Alvarado, who combined to account for over half of the Jaspers' offensive productivity.
"We're going to really miss Rhamel," Masiello intimated shortly after commencing the proceedings. "If we can get Jermaine (Lawrence, who transferred from Cincinnati) eligible, I think we'll be okay. Our talent's probably better than last year. I think we're right there."
The "big three" may be gone, but Manhattan's young core returns having garnered much-needed experience in last season's run to the NCAA Tournament and a near-upset of Louisville, coached by Masiello's mentor, Rick Pitino. Expect senior forward Emmy Andujar, Masiello's first recruit upon replacing Barry Rohrssen in 2011; as well as fourth-year junior Ashton Pankey, to lead the charge up front while RaShawn Stores and Tyler Wilson reprise Manhattan's two-point guard system with Shane Richards and sophomore Rich Williams on the wings, the latter of whom has already drawn high praise.
"He could be a first-teamer this year," Masiello said of Williams. "Whether he is or he isn't, I'm not sure, but that's what his impact will be for us."
Swingman Donovan Kates and forward Carlton Allen also return to Riverdale this year, as does walk-on Trevor Glassman, with Manhattan welcoming a quartet of freshmen that Masiello hopes will fill the voids left by Beamon, Brown and Alvarado. Early on, it seems as though the coach has found yet another diamond in the rough, his latest gem coming in the form of 6-9 Calvin Crawford, who impressed in his showing on both sides of the ball.
"He's going to be really good down low," Masiello said of his prospect. "He really knows how to play, and we hope he's our heir apparent for Emmy."
Just as it was last season on the road to a conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance, depth is once again abundant on this year's Manhattan roster, as is a hungry group of players that were unable to celebrate their success the way they had hoped to.
"It's been more about me, and it should be more about the players," Masiello stated with regard to his pursuit of the then-vacant coaching position at South Florida making headlines for unintended reasons. "Regardless of what has gone on or hasn't gone on, the players achieved what happened last year, not me, and they should be rewarded for that."
When asked of the possibility of a championship hangover, Masiello was emphatic in pointing out that this year's team will be different, but also that there is unfinished business to settle.
"We're not looking around to celebrate or hang banners by any means," he proclaimed. "I think everyone's aware of who we are because of the success we've achieved. Although we feel we had a good year last year, we didn't achieve what our goals were, what our destination was. That loss (to Louisville) has got to be fertilizer for our success. It's got to set the ground, set the bar for what we need to do, and anything less than that, we won't be happy with."