Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Hungry and healthy, Manhattan picks up in search of redemption

After their reign as two-time MAAC champions was cut short, Steve Masiello and Manhattan are back at work, in search of returning to the summit this season. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Moments after Siena derailed Manhattan's bid for a third consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship, Steve Masiello wasted little time in declaring the end game for his program, even though the ball would not be tipped again until November.

"That vision now starts over Monday morning at individuals at 8 a.m.," the ultra-competitive coach boldly stated on March 5.

Five months later, the Jaspers continued the arduous task of recapturing the hardware, going through a summer workout in midseason form inside a steamy Draddy Gymnasium. The limited time coaches get to spend with their teams in July and August can sometimes be a feeling-out process in which both sides learn more about themselves, but in Riverdale, the intensity has shown no sign of letting up. And for Masiello, the re-infusion of good health to a roster bereft of such a blessing through most of last season has been of the most significant satisfaction in this preliminary stage of rebuilding his team and honing their craft.

"More than anything, I'm just happy to have 12 guys out there right now that are competing," he candidly assessed Tuesday evening. "We haven't had a full roster in over a year, so it's nice to have options when you go to your bench. You can do some things, so that's what I'm excited about. The conditioning will come, the skill sets will come, but they're working hard, they're doing the right things, and they have a good way about them right now."

While some of the players, namely senior guards Rich Williams and Tyler Wilson, remain incumbents in the system, what stands out at first blush is the addition of two experienced forwards in junior college transfers Ahmed Ismail and Zavier Peart, a pairing that gives the Jaspers much-needed rim protection and interior presence, something the program lacked through most of last season after graduating Ashton Pankey the year before, and Rhamel Brown two years ago.

"Ahmed is a legit 7-2, Zavier is 6-10 with a 7-3 wingspan, and then you have (AK) Ojo, you add him to the mix and you've got a great group," said Masiello of his big men, who have improved significantly under the tutelage of newly-hired assistant coach Shawn Finney, whom Masiello praised as a "phenomenal hire" for the program given his history of developing forwards and centers at the professional level, most notably Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat. "That's three five men that can legitimately help you, but what it does more than anything is it lets Zane Waterman and Calvin (Crawford) play their natural position at the four and lets Rich Williams be a natural three, and that's what I'm more excited about, that we have guys who can get back to their natural positions."

Manhattan welcomes a pair of freshman guards into the fold as well, with New Jersey native NaQuan Council donning the No. 0 famously occupied by Shane Richards over the past four years, and Cardozo product Aaron Walker; who has received considerable hype since signing with the Jaspers, joining junior point guard Zavier Turner, who is eligible this season following his year in residence upon transferring from Ball State.

"Physically, they're both very gifted," Masiello said of his first-year backcourt members. "They're both physically ready to play and have great talents. For them, it's more mental right now, understanding the game at this level, the speed, the reads on pick-and-rolls, the reads in our zones."

Of Turner, the sixth-year coach was equally as complimentary.

"I think he's a guy that, in one-on-one situations, is close to unguardable," said Masiello. "I think he's a guy who knows how to play in the pick-and-roll, I think he's going to be able to put constant pressure on the defense to get in the lane and force rotations, and he's a guy who could shoot from deep. He's a guy you have to honor, you have to guard, and I think more than anything, he's a guy that can pick you up 94 feet and really disrupt your offense."

These new pieces, meshed with the returning parts to the roster, give Manhattan a much more complete feel than the product that soldiered through the early months last season as a unit that was fractured but still scrappy and resilient, and that is by design, says Masiello.

"This year's roster was built with a purpose," he proclaimed. "Last year's roster sort of flowed into place. This year's roster was designed with a cause. A lot of it was done late in the year with the year that we had, but we went out on a mission and accomplished it. We got what we wanted."

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