Thursday, December 22, 2016

Jaspers look to end non-conference season with home win vs. Eastern Kentucky

Zavier Turner's scoring prowess has been vital to Manhattan's success this season, but junior point guard insists his start is merely tip of the iceberg. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

Manhattan has experienced a renaissance of sorts over the past two weeks, reverting to their suffocating defense to score wins in two of their last three contests. And while the greatest bastion of the winning culture in Riverdale has made its triumphant return in victories over Fordham and St. Francis Brooklyn, the complete package is not there yet, but such is to be expected in the methodical approach that allowed room to be made for a pair of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship trophies inside Draddy Gymnasium.

"Our offense isn't where it needs to be, but that's an easy fix," head coach Steve Masiello said after the Jaspers (4-8) limited St. Francis to 54 points in a hard-fought road win Tuesday night. "The defense is a hard fix, and that's there. As long as that's there, I have great faith in them, I really do."

The defense will need to come to the forefront once again Thursday as Manhattan welcomes Eastern Kentucky (6-7) into Riverdale, entertaining a Colonels team that possesses four double-figure scorers, including reigning Ohio Valley Conference Rookie of the Year Nick Mayo and highly touted freshman Asante Gist, a local product who played for Bob Hurley at St. Anthony. Head coach Dan McHale is no stranger to Manhattan and the MAAC either, having served with Masiello under Bobby Gonzalez during the Jaspers' run of success in the early 2000s before joining Kevin Willard at Iona and following him to Seton Hall. But to stand toe-to-toe with an offense averaging 78 points per game, one needs to have a proven scorer, and Manhattan possesses that in junior point guard Zavier Turner.

"He's so much better than he's showing," said Masiello of Turner, whose 26 points Tuesday were most integral in Manhattan earning its second victory in their last three contests. "He's one of the most explosive guards in the country. He's as good as I've coached."

"I want to do whatever I could possibly do to help our team," said Turner, owner of a team-leading 17.8 points per game and 50 percent three-point field goal clip. "If that means shooting threes or taking over the game, so be it."

Playing a style as physically demanding as the brand Masiello has instituted can have its ups and downs, and while Turner has the keys to the offense for the first time since transferring from Ball State, he has managed to adapt to his role fairly well.

"These guys do a great job helping me day in, day out, the guys that have been here," Turner admitted, praising his teammates for allowing him to better acclimate himself to Manhattan basketball. "Guys like Tyler Wilson, he helps me a lot every day, (graduate assistant) RaShawn Stores; who played last year for Coach Mas, he helps me out. Every day, it's a process."

Such is life around the Jasper program, one whose long-term success predicates itself on finding the right groove at the right time, ideally hitting its peak in late February to prepare for the MAAC Tournament in March. And despite a start that some critics would label slow, Turner feels that the slow-and-steady approach has yielded positive benefits to his game and the team as a whole.

"I'm getting better and better, our team is getting better and better," he said. "You're going to see Manhattan rolling."

*Quotes from Ray Curren of NYC Buckets also contributed to this story.

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