Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Manhattan arrives in Albany for final stage of championship defense

Manhattan may be seeded sixth as they go through opening round of MAAC tournament for first time since 2011, but Steve Masiello is making sure Jaspers are not counted out in Albany. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)

Looking at their 12-17 record and 9-11 mark in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play, casual observers have their reasons to write off Manhattan going into this week's MAAC Tournament at the Times Union Center in Albany.

Those who follow the Jaspers, or the MAAC as a whole, closely, know better than to ignore the reigning two-time champions, who open the tournament as the No. 6 seed, taking on Marist Thursday evening in the first of what would be four games should Manhattan emerge with a third straight trophy.

"Until we're out of this tournament, we're still the back-to-back champions," head coach Steve Masiello reiterated as his team prepares for its first contest of the weekend, with Siena waiting in the wings if the Jaspers do get past Marist on Thursday. "I think a lot of teams are going to exhale if we're bumped out, or when we are bumped out."

With Manhattan flying under the radar more so than they have in several years thanks to the strong presence of Monmouth and Iona atop the MAAC leaderboard throughout the season, along with Siena being able to play in its own backyard, the Jaspers seem to be more of a hunter this time around as opposed to being the proverbial hunted team they were in each of the past two seasons. While that may be true, it is worth noting that Manhattan has technically never been the favorite if it is assumed that that title is worn by the regular season champion.

"I think it's eerie that that's probably accurate," Masiello said of his team receiving a lower media profile than usual. "Even though we're not going in as the favorite, I don't think we ever have won as the favorite."

In an ironic twist of fate, the change to the MAAC tournament format that Masiello opposed in the offseason may actually end up being of great benefit to the Jaspers. With the top two seeds now having a day off between the quarterfinals and semifinals, Manhattan could take advantage of having played two games on the Times Union Center floor if they are fortunate enough to get into the semifinals and perhaps face an Iona team coming off a break between Friday and Sunday. Even if that does not work out, Masiello's team still gets a day of rest between Thursday and Saturday should they win their first game, a luxury this season given the lack of depth that has been a major concern all season in Riverdale.

"It's just how life goes sometimes," the coach quipped about possibly capitalizing off the short hiatus. "Sometimes, the things you fight are the things that end up helping you. It's one of those situations where I think this year, it could benefit us."

Before any visions of grandeur can be seen, though, one task remains firmly in front of Manhattan, and that is solving a Marist team who enters the tournament off two consecutive wins to end the regular season, and one who defeated the Jaspers on their home floor at Draddy Gymnasium in December before Manhattan picked up a hard-fought road win at McCann Arena three weeks ago. Head coach Mike Maker brings a scrappy group led by second team All-MAAC selection Khallid Hart and All-Rookie honoree Brian Parker into battle, and as the Red Foxes proved last year in their hot shooting display from the No. 11 seed against Quinnipiac in last year's tournament, they are far from a pushover.

"We need to guard the three-point line," said Masiello of the biggest key to victory Thursday. "When they shoot the three, it's a game-changer for them. We can't allow them to get good looks or be in good rhythm. They're a great passing team, they shoot it from multiple positions. They're underrated in transition, and they have, in my opinion, one of the best backcourts in this league in Parker and Hart. Any time you have great guard play in a tournament setting, great things can happen."

Even though Thursday starts the MAAC tournament, the approach for Manhattan is somewhat different, although logical in a way.

"Thursday's going to be a road game," Masiello stated. "We're going to go play a road game on Thursday. If we're fortunate enough to advance, then we'll go play in a conference tournament, but that's how our mindset's going to be. We're going up to play a single game, isolated-type thing, and that's how we're going to approach this thing."

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