Monday, November 13, 2017

5 questions for Manhattan

With four seniors and one of MAAC's more experienced rosters returning, Steve Masiello has many reasons to be enthused as he begins his seventh season at Manhattan. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

We begin the first Monday of the college basketball season, appropriately enough, with Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference-related content. The first official MAAC Monday will be upon us in the weeks to come, but for the moment, here is the last of our five-question preview pieces surrounding the four teams that make up the foundation of this site's coverage. St. John's and Seton Hall began the series, followed by Iona, and we bring down the curtain by taking a closer look at the Gaels' adversaries nine miles to the south as Manhattan opens their season Wednesday against St. Francis Brooklyn:

1) How much will the Jaspers get from Rich Williams?
The return of Williams, a fifth-year senior guard, from a torn meniscus that shelved his entire season last year, is comparable to signing a Top 100 recruit at a high-major program. Manhattan was lost without the two-way hustle and veteran leadership from the Brooklyn native, something that revealed itself far too often as the Jaspers struggled to a 10-22 record, their worst under Steve Masiello since he was hired in 2011. With an experienced supporting cast around him, and the depth that has long been a Jasper calling card now back in full force to allow Williams to play at his natural position, do not be surprised if he posts numbers that merit him a spot on the MAAC's first all-conference team.

2) Can the big men stay out of foul trouble?
Easier said than done in Manhattan's system, which stresses physical play on both ends of the floor at a breakneck pace, seeking to get opposing teams rattled and forcefully evict them from their comfort zone. With the smash-mouth, in-your-face defense for which the Jaspers have come to be known comes an increased amount of whistles, but a cadre of incoming forwards will ease the burden for incumbents such as Zane Waterman and Calvin Crawford. Junior college arrival Pauly Paulicap, who has already drawn comparisons to Rhamel Brown for his rim protection and interior defense, should be among the starting five early in the year, and will go a long way toward shoring up what had been a weakness for Manhattan last season. Incoming freshmen Warren Williams and Ebube Ebube will see their share of minutes as well, with the former being more of a banger down low.

3) Is this the year that Aaron Walker becomes an all-conference player?
Maybe not yet given the upperclassmen in front of him across the MAAC, but the former Cardozo standout will certainly take a huge step forward as a sophomore, because he is; quite frankly, too talented not to. As a freshman, Walker's campaign was filled with several peaks and valleys before a late surge to finish the year, one that suggested greater heights on the horizon. His defense, a cause for concern in certain spots a year ago, has also improved. This may actually be one of the biggest impacts that having a healthy Rich Williams can have on the Jasper roster, as his relentless style should rub off on his younger teammates, Walker being a prime example.

4) Who is a potential X-factor for the Jaspers?
This may be an unlikely candidate to some, but we'll go with Tom Capuano. Now entering his junior season, the Westchester product has nearly seen it all in just two short seasons in Riverdale. From playing an unusually high amount of minutes for a freshman in the Jasper system to a jack-of-all-trades sophomore year that prompted Masiello to dub him the team's middle linebacker, Capuano has been prepared for almost every possible situation that occurs on the floor. Furthermore, his effort in Manhattan's exhibition game against Sacred Heart; without giving away too many details, was by far the best of any player wearing the Jasper uniform. He will likely be a sixth man in terms of perceived talent level, but do not be surprised to see Capuano in the starting lineup more often than not, filling the warrior role that RaShawn Stores occupied on the 2013-14 and 2014-15 MAAC championship teams.

5) Exactly how much of a jump will Manhattan make in the MAAC?
The addition of front line depth places the Jaspers ahead of many of their conference brethren in that department, and that does not take into account a returning preseason first team all-MAAC forward in Waterman. Williams' return will augment the backcourt, and based solely on the returning players in a league that has gotten younger on the whole, it is easy to see Manhattan reclaiming their spot among the conference's top teams after two years of fighting off injuries and seeing their bottom line sacrificed as a result. This year, mostly everyone is in good order at the present moment, and with some of the MAAC's heavyweights having their own issues, the opportunity for the Jaspers to rejoin the fray is greater than at any other point since their last championship run. Moreover, the wise MAAC expert knows not to bet against Masiello and his ability to get the best out of his team as the season ensues, particularly in February and March. Manhattan will be in the mix throughout.

Prediction: 19-11, 12-6 MAAC

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