Even after seeing his Jaspers even their record by going 8-3 in their last 11 games, Steve Masiello is still confident that Manhattan's best basketball is yet to come. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
The changing of the calendar from January to February is usually accompanied by several different signs in the sports universe. From the fervor of Super Bowl week to the reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training, and even NASCAR's annual SpeedWeeks at Daytona International Speedway, these occurrences are marked not only by the anticipation of what fans have clamored for, but also more often than not, some moments in each sport that may eventually earn a place on a collective highlight reel spanning the entire season.
Last year, Manhattan College basketball occupied such a distinction, with the Jaspers using February and March to power their way past local adversary Iona en route to a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship. This season, despite the loss of Manhattan's three leading scorers from the title run, the Jaspers may only be 10-10 through 20 games, four games behind last year's pace, but the hope around Riverdale is as high as it was on this date in 2014.
"I think we're a little behind," Steve Masiello admitted of how far his team has progressed toward his vision of where it would be, even after Manhattan ended January with an 87-79 victory over Siena at Draddy Gymnasium Friday night, one in which five Jaspers scored 10 or more points. "You guys keep talking about everyone else. Forget about us. We haven't accomplished anything this year. We don't want any praise now."
Despite a surge that has seen the Jaspers win eight of eleven since a nine-point loss to Pittsburgh on December 17, Masiello has been down this road before. On January 31 of last year, Manhattan dropped an 85-73 decision to Iona at the Hynes Center to fall to 14-6 on the season and 7-4 in MAAC play, the only time all season in which the Jaspers lost two games in a row. What followed was a run that would make even the 2007 New York Giants blush, as Manhattan finished their championship campaign 11-2 in their last 13 games, with the only two defeats coming by a grand total of just 11 points, at Siena in February; and more notably, the high profile near-miss against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament last March.
"We know where we need to be come March," Masiello steadfastly declared, "and we will be there. We will do what we need to do to be where we need to be. That's the makeup of these kids, that's the makeup of this team."
The second month of the calendar year begins with an arduous task for Manhattan, as the Jaspers travel down the Garden State Parkway into West Long Branch, New Jersey, where awaiting them this afternoon will be a Monmouth team that was narrowly upended by Manhattan just a week ago today in Riverdale, and one eager to even the score.
"They have that mentality now where they're not only coming out and trying to make a statement every night," Masiello told Josh Newman of the Asbury Park Press in advance of today's showdown with the Hawks; a team that Manhattan's coach has been raving about since the summer workout period began, "they know they belong, and they do. You look at that team, and it's the sign of a winner."
When Manhattan and Monmouth last took the floor at the Multipurpose Activity Center, the Jaspers emerged victorious, thanks in large part to a scintillating scoring display by George Beamon, who scored 24 of his game-high 31 points in the first half. However, Masiello heaped mounds of praise on his counterpart, King Rice, after the game, stating that he felt Monmouth's head coach should be considered for Coach of the Year honors in the MAAC for the way he had gotten his young roster to not only compete, but relentlessly fight their way through each game in their first season removed from the Northeast Conference.
Twelve months have since come and gone, and now Monmouth is the first of several more hurdles standing in Manhattan's way. Nevertheless, while the contenders and landscape of their conference may look different from the picture painted last February, what remains constant is how the Jaspers will approach the final twists and turns before converging upon the Times Union Center for the MAAC tournament.
"We have no problem with not being champions in January or February," Masiello assuredly stated. "We have no issues with that at all, it's not what it's about for us. It's not about bracketology, not about who's picking what, that's never won me."
"I think we're behind where we need to be right now," he continued. "From a defensive standpoint, we need to improve in that area. If we get that, which I think we can because of the character of the kids I coach, I think we have a great chance to be who I think we are."