RaShawn Stores displayed veteran battle tactics in pregame press conference, refuting any notion that Manhattan was looking past matchup with Hampton and ahead to Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)
It has followed Manhattan from their on-campus party in Riverdale all the way to Dayton. And if the Jaspers take care of business Tuesday evening, it will join them once again in Louisville.
Until then, though, the white elephant in the room that nearly everyone has referenced in one way, shape, or form remains a nonexistent one to the team who tips off the NCAA Tournament having won a second straight conference championship.
"The media has it out there," point guard RaShawn Stores admitted in a press conference before the Jaspers meet MEAC champion Hampton at 6:40 p.m. Tuesday for the right to square off against undefeated Kentucky. "34-0, but right after we had got picked, Coach told us, you know, 'just focus on Hampton.' That's all we can do, is take it one game at a time, like any other tournament. We're just preparing for Hampton, and God willing, if we win, whatever happens, happens."
As cliched as the "one game at a time" adage may sound, it is that mindset that has brought the Jaspers here. Head coach Steve Masiello has made everyone aware of just how much trust he has poured into the process of retooling after losing his trio of seniors that led Manhattan to its first NCAA Tournament in a decade last season, and if channeling his inner Bill Belichick is the best way to guide his team in their return to the field of 68, then that's fine by him as well.
"I honestly haven't," Masiello admitted when asked if he thought about the potential clash with the Wildcats, for whom he played and won a national championship in 1998. "Hypothetically, if we were playing another 1, (seed) or if there was another 1 waiting for Hampton or for us, maybe I would've, but because it's them, it's the last thing I'll think about. If I start thinking in hypotheticals, I'll get us in a lot of trouble."
Masiello's game coaching and motivational abilities are no longer unknown, as a worldwide audience saw him take a Louisville team led by his Hall of Fame mentor, Rick Pitino, to the limit last March. Nor is his basketball intellect or his talent as a quick study, which revealed itself immediately when breaking down film in between Manhattan's announcement as a No. 16 seed and their subsequent flight to Dayton Monday morning.
"I think they'll attack everything," Masiello said of Hampton, whose MEAC schedule included a Morgan State team that the Jaspers defeated in December. "So if you're not ready, they're going to attack you and you have to be ready for that, and if you're not ready, they'll exploit you. If we don't scramble with great urgency, they'll have success against us."
Despite a 16-17 record, the Pirates do have three double-figure scorers, with a fourth; leading scorer and rebounder Dwight Meikle, out with an ankle injury he suffered during the MEAC Tournament. It is this versatility, coupled with a defense that yields only 68 points per game to its opponents, that Masiello made a priority of singling out when reiterating the keys to victory Tuesday night.
"We'll initiate, they'll react," he offered, "and then we have to react that again. This team will react and take you on, which I have a lot of respect for. That's why they're so dangerous."
Like each of the 32 games Manhattan has played to get them to this point, Hampton is not necessarily a trap game, even with Kentucky waiting in the wings for whomever wins this opening game of this year's "Big Dance." Rather, the battle between the Jaspers and Pirates is one step along the road, and it happens to be the first such benchmark, thus explaining not only the rationale in which Masiello is preparing his roster, but also bringing his faith in the winning process full circle.
"The 'what-ifs' are where you lose your now," he cautioned, "and all we can worry about, we are, right now, obsessed with Hampton. If Hampton was our girlfriend, there'd be a restraining order on us. That's where we're at. We're eating, sleeping and breathing Hampton. That's it, and that's where we are."