Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Manhattan/Florida State Preview

Aaron Thomas and Florida State are Manhattan's first opposition in Jaspers' MAAC championship defense. (Photo courtesy of Florida State University)

When Manhattan takes the court against Florida State on Saturday, 240 days will have elapsed in between the Jaspers' last official action, their well-documented near-miss against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament that led to a nationwide introduction of head coach Steve Masiello before his now-notorious tryst with the University of South Florida and their head coaching vacancy that was ultimately filled by Orlando Antigua.

Yet that, along with the three seniors who led Manhattan to those heights just eight months ago, has made its way into the history books. Gone are Michael Alvarado, George Beamon and Rhamel Brown, but Masiello returns to Riverdale for his fourth season, and he brings a taller roster blended with experience and youth into battle as the Jaspers defend their Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship. The first act in the encore for a group that has what the coach considers a "higher ceiling" than any of his other teams was a 78-67 exhibition victory over LIU Post that showed Masiello that Manhattan "could win ugly," as five double-figure scorers and a total of 51 personal fouls were among the headlines this past Saturday at Draddy Gym.

The scene now shifts to Tallahassee, where awaiting the Jaspers is a Florida State team that; although not having reached the pinnacle of their sport the way Jameis Winston and the Seminoles' football team did en route to a national championship last season, was a winner in its own right, claiming a 22-win season and semifinal appearance in the National Invitation Tournament one year ago, and returning arguably one of the nation's more dynamic players in junior shooting guard Aaron Thomas, a dark horse candidate for Player of the Year honors in an Atlantic Coast Conference loaded with star power that ranges from highly touted Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor to North Carolina floor general Marcus Paige.

"They're so big and so talented," Masiello said of Florida State. "They score so well with Aaron Thomas, they give you a hard time the way they play pick-and-rolls, their size is overwhelming. We're going to have our hands full. They're a very unique team with the way they play."

As we have done for some other previews in the past, most notably with our coverage of Fordham University, we welcome a fellow media member with intimate knowledge of the opponent at hand to help us get to know the competition a little better. We are proud to not only expand our question and answer sessions to coverage of other schools this season, but also to start off our new journey by introducing Michael Rogner of Tomahawk Nation (you can follow Michael on Twitter at @TN_Hoops) to open the book on Leonard Hamilton and the Seminoles as they welcome Manhattan into the Sunshine State:

Jaden Daly: Five of the Seminoles' top eight scorers are back from a team that reached the semifinals of the NIT last season. Are they in a good position to not only take the next step, but also contend for an ACC championship?

Michael Rogner: I don't expect them to compete for the ACC title, as the 'Noles are a clear step behind Duke, UNC, Louisville, and Virginia. But they are taking the next step, though I'm not convinced we'll see the results this year. Coach Hamilton has kept the program together with duct tape and band-aids for a decade, and as a basketball junkie at a football school, I've been terribly disappointed that the athletic department wouldn't make a commitment to hoops, but that is now changing with a new AD. Our terrible facilities are being renovated and there is a buzz around the program, highlighted by a top 5 recruiting class. So things are looking up, but I expect this year's team to similar to last year's - a bubble team, though hopefully on the right side this time around.

JD: For those who have still not yet heard of Aaron Thomas, (and a lot of fans here in the Northeast haven't) what makes him so special, and what can Manhattan expect from him in particular on Saturday?

MR: AT is a slasher who was easy to guard as a freshman, but he added a 3-point shot to his repertoire as a sophomore, and his game blossomed. Now he scores from all three levels and he might be the best player FSU has ever had when it comes to attacking the baseline, and these plays often end up on highlight reels. The question for this year is whether he'll be assertive from the opening tip. His weakness is that he's not selfish enough and he often waited until the second half to become aggressive. He's also the Seminoles' best defender, and on that end he exerts max effort and is always a threat to take careless passes the other way.

JD: Manhattan has more frontcourt depth than Florida State, but conversely, the Seminoles have a deeper backcourt. Against Manhattan's full court pressure, does this play into FSU's favor?

MR: For stretches last year, FSU only had three scholarship guards in uniform, so FSU was easy to press. But when healthy, they handled the press well. At one point against VCU, the 'Noles led by 30. That said, FSU graduated its most gifted ball handler (Ian Miller) and three of the guards have never played a Division I game, but FSU has three junior guards and I expect those guys at least to be competent against the press.

JD: After being declared ineligible last season, Xavier Rathan-Mayes finally arrives in Tallahassee. What exactly does he bring to the table that makes him so highly touted?

MR: XRM is a big point guard who is also a gifted scorer. Coach Hamilton loves running three-guard lineups, and having guys who can score as well as run the offense gives him the flexibility he covets. Rathan-Mayes is one of the keys to that flexibility (along with 6-8 combo guard Montay Brandon) and his role will involve scoring, rebounding, and setting up his teammates. In other words, he's supposed to be a stat stuffer. Early in the season, I expect him to play more off the ball as he learns the offense at game speed. He has a beautiful jumper, very good vision, and knows how to use his body in traffic.

JD: Finally, what are the keys to victory for Florida State, and what, if any, are their weaknesses?

MR: The two main weaknesses are that FSU is a terrible defensive rebounding team and the offense turns the ball over too much. The turnovers I've come to live with, but the 'Noles absolutely have to be better on the boards. It's really deflating to play great defense for 30 seconds only to see the other team get another opportunity. If the new guys - Phil Cofer and XRM in particular - can make FSU an average defensive rebounding team, then that would be huge for the season and this game. To beat Manhattan, FSU will have to turn stops into quick offense to avoid the press, and this requires good rebounding. The other key, unless AT goes beast mode and takes over the game, will be FSU's outside shooting. FSU led the ACC in three-point shooting last year, but over-reliance on the three-ball creates boom/bust scenarios. If FSU has a solid shooting game from the arc, then I'm not sure Manhattan will be able to score enough to pull out a win.

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