Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Jaspers arrive in Albany humbled, but by all means hopeful

Zane Waterman, who scored 30 or more points in both of Manhattan's games against Rider this season, will be a focal point for Jaspers in rubber match with Broncs to open MAAC Tournament. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/Manhattan College Athletics)

Conference tournaments always bring out the best in teams for better or worse, and for Manhattan this season, the flip of the calendar from February to March could not have come at a better time.

Having fought their way through a 10-21 regular season that is unlike the recent status quo in Riverdale, the Jaspers now prepare for their next endeavor by attempting to make history and win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament from the No. 11 seed, something that has never happened in the league's 35-year history. But Cinderella, Manhattan is not, especially not when the two pieces of championship hardware in the Draddy Gymnasium trophy case are brought into the conversation.

"It's all meaningless to me," head coach Steve Masiello said of where his team is seeded as they open their tournament slate Thursday evening against Rider, a team against whom Manhattan split their two regular-season contests, winning the first at home before falling victim to a hot-shooting Broncs team in the second half of the return match on February 22. "You could be the best team, you could be us, you could be anyone in between, you could be anywhere."

While the most casual of observers will almost instantly dismiss the Jaspers due to the number that lies alongside their name, the wise man certainly knows not to dismiss a program that has proven its mettle when the chips are on the line, nor does one write off the unbridled competitive fire that Masiello has been able to stoke with just the right intensity over the years. With that said, most teams are heeding his warning when he insists that the task of slaying the giant four times in five days may be improbable, but by no means impossible.

"Is it harder to do probably playing four games? Yeah, it is," Masiello admitted. "But can it not be done? It can be done. We've seen teams do it before, when UConn won the Big East Tournament and got on a run (playing five games in as many days in 2011), Syracuse got on a run. That doesn't mean it can't be done. It's just a little harder, but I think; ironically, the one day off can be something that helps us."

The hiatus to which the sixth-year coach refers is the one-day break in between playing Rider Thursday night and, should they emerge victorious, a meeting with Iona on Saturday. When the MAAC altered its tournament format before last season, Masiello was skeptical of how the off day would affect his team, yet admitted that it could be more of a boon than a bane last year as well; when the Jaspers opened with the same 10 p.m. start they face this season, defeating Marist before falling in the quarterfinals to Siena.

Regardless, Manhattan must find a way to stop a Rider team that has averaged 92 points per game in its last six contests and enters the tournament on a three-game winning streak, including a 93-82 decision over the Jaspers at Alumni Gymnasium. Junior forward and third team all-MAAC honoree Zane Waterman, who torched the Broncs for 35 and 30 points, respectively, in his two encounters with Rider this year, will be the primary focus on offense. But it is the other side of the basketball, the one by which Manhattan has earned their sterling reputation, that takes the utmost importance when preparing for a team that is a gifted scoring unit.

"We didn't defend in the second half, and that's the biggest thing we need to adjust," said Masiello of Manhattan's last experience with Rider, one in which the Jaspers held a 53-44 lead at halftime. "We didn't do a good job defending in the second half. We've got to do the things we're capable of doing and that we're known for doing, and if we do that, then hopefully we can get our kind of basketball game."

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