By urging his team to remain hungry in MAAC championship defense, Steve Masiello has Manhattan on precipice of turning another corner as conference tournament draws closer. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Fuhrmann of the Manhattan College Quadrangle)
The late comedian Rodney Dangerfield's most celebrated routine was one in which he consistently bemoaned his lack of respect.
Little did he know, though, that a college basketball team from New York would receive similar treatment. But unlike the great comic, this group is doing something about it.
Eleven months removed from a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship that they were not able to celebrate and enjoy to the fullest, due to circumstances beyond their control, Manhattan College's success was somewhat forgotten on a national scale as the Jaspers prepared to begin their encore this season. Add the graduations of their three leading scorers from last season, coupled with the latest retooling of their geographic and league rival, Iona, and what resulted was a program that; once again, had something to prove, but the man overseeing it all would not have it any other way.
"For us, it's kind of, we try to be hungry after we've won three in a row, and just as hungry after we've lost one," head coach Steve Masiello said of his Manhattan team, who welcomes Iona to Draddy Gymnasium tonight for the first skirmish between the two adversaries since last March's epic MAAC championship game, won by the Jaspers when David Laury's potential game-tying three-pointer bounced off the rim at the final buzzer. "I want my guys, I think that's one of the reasons...you ask most people about the Manhattan brand, I would hope one of them would be how hard we play, and I think that's because our guys always have a chip on their shoulder."
At 12-11 on the year, and 9-5 in MAAC play, three games behind the conference-leading Gaels, Manhattan has much more to gain tonight than their opponents, and even after a hard-fought overtime loss at the hands of Rider Sunday afternoon, the Jaspers are; in the mind of their coach, still trending in a positive direction.
"I like the way we're playing, I like what we're doing," Masiello proclaimed leading up to what has become a Super Bowl of sorts on the MAAC schedule. "I think the Rider game was just a really good game, and we're just trying to keep building on it. Sooner or later, we've all got to kind of face the bullet, and how you handle that stretch really says a lot about your team and your character."
Behind the renewed focus and breakout seasons of Ashton Pankey and Shane Richards, Manhattan once again has multiple options that can, and will, burn opponents on both sides of the ball. But as has been the case throughout this season, and throughout Masiello's tenure; at least against Iona, the heart and soul of his stampeding herd is senior forward Emmy Andujar, who has found a way to stick a dagger in the maroon and gold hearts of the Gaels in each of his three seasons in Riverdale.
"I think he's been playing good basketball, that's what I think," Masiello praised his floor leader by saying. "I think he's established himself as one of the best mid-major players in the country. I think he's really doing things that help us towards our goal of winning another championship, so whether that leads to a big night, (tonight) we don't really think that way. We're really more concerned with not letting A.J. (English) get going, not letting David (Laury) get going, and making the right reads on our rotations. For me, that's what I'm more concerned about, and however he (Andujar) needs to help this team win, I know what he's about and I know he'll find a way to do that."
As Andujar enters his latest showdown with Iona, so too do the Jaspers as a whole with fresher legs, at least on paper. Whereas Manhattan has not played since traveling to New Jersey to play Rider on Sunday, tonight's game will be the fourth in eight days for the Gaels, who have defeated Siena, Marist, and Fairfield to turn a three-game win streak into a six-game string that will be on the line against an archrival looking for their third straight victory against their neighbors fifteen minutes to the north. But while some may consider an apparent fatigue factor to work against the Gaels, Masiello knows better, and went about his game plan in much the same fashion as he would any other opponent as his Jaspers attempt to overcome a three-game deficit in the league standings.
"For me, it's about 'are we playing good basketball against the top teams in the conference?' That's what it's about," Masiello reassured. "We prepare for every single team there is, and I think that's why we've been so competitive for the last year. That's just kind of who we are. We try to be that starving lion that wants to eat the jungle."