With senior leadership from upperclassmen such as Zane Waterman, Manhattan was able to rely on veteran guile along with staunch defense to defeat Fairfield in MAAC opener. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/Manhattan College Athletics)
RIVERDALE, NY -- For the first time since the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship season of 2013-14, Manhattan opened league play on a winning note, yielding just 35 percent shooting from the floor and only five three-point field goals to visiting Fairfield Saturday night, walking off the Draddy Gymnasium hardwood with a 61-58 victory over the Stags to improve to 6-7 on the year and 4-0 at home. As the Jaspers turn the page from 2017 into 2018, we offer our obligatory handful of observations from the winning and losing benches as each team moves further along the conference road in the new year:
1) Senior leadership.
Manhattan's veterans accounted for approximately two-thirds of the scoring Saturday night, but what stands out more is that head coach Steve Masiello did not call a timeout at any point in the contest, thanks in large part to his seniors maintaining their awareness on both ends of the floor and the two-way dialogue between media stoppages, something that has always been a critical component of the team dynamic since he took over the program in 2011.
"Our defense won the game, and a big part of that has been these guys' mindset," Masiello emphasized in his postgame press conference. "If you could mic our huddles, it's amazing to hear the dialogue of what our players are talking about. Not our coaches, but the players. That showed tonight."
2) Good looks that just didn't fall?
That seems to be the assessment from the Fairfield end, as head coach Sydney Johnson was not as despondent about his team's shooting woes as one may have predicted.
"I liked the shots we took," he admitted. "I think the tough thing for us is -- and I think for any team -- with their schemes, you don't necessarily know where the shot is going to be. I felt like we got shots that we wanted, but they do a great job with their energy. They contest shots, and I give credit to them that you can't say, 'Hey, you're gonna get this shot every time.' That's certainly not what Steve allows, so you gotta credit them for that."
3) An uncharacteristic slump from distance.
Tyler Nelson, the MAAC's Preseason Player of the Year, entered Saturday's contest with a career mark of 14-for-28 in three-point field goal attempts in six career meetings against Manhattan. The senior only connected on three of his twelve attempts in his seventh encounter with the Jaspers, dropping him to just 30 percent from deep on the year, yet his coach remained confident that his star guard would get off the schneid in due time.
"He's the best shooter on our team by far, and it shows up over and over again where he's making shots," Johnson said before admitting he was perplexed as to what the struggles from long range can be attributed to. "Honestly, the last three weeks, I think he's taken really good shots. I think he's holding his follow-through, he's getting his reps in. Tonight, I think it chalks up to you don't necessarily know where every shot's going to be, but our last game out, he shot the ball well. I do know this: He's the best player I've ever coached, and I do think he's going to make a few more shots moving forward."
4) More than meets the eye for Fairfield's defense.
The Stags won their MAAC opener Thursday night conceding just 61 points to Saint Peter's, and gave up the same number Saturday to Manhattan, albeit in a losing effort. Fairfield ranks fifth in the conference in scoring defense, but the advanced metrics are kinder, with Ken Pomeroy ranking their 103.5 defensive efficiency fourth-best in the league, a standing that is on par with their third-most efficient defense a year ago.
"I tell anybody who will listen that I think we're a defensive team," Johnson said. "I think we've got a lot of length, a lot of athleticism, a lot of heart. I don't know what people look at with Fairfield basketball, I don't know what the adjectives are; but for me, I think we are athletic, we're tough, and I think we can be as good defensively as any other team. But we've gotta earn it, we've gotta show it every time out, and for two games, we've been there."
5) Welcome to Riverdale, Ibrahima Diallo.
The 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from Rutgers officially joined the roster before Saturday's game after rumors of his arrival made the rounds on social media over the past week. Diallo was on the bench Saturday even though he did not play, but he is immediately available and will have two seasons of eligibility; including this year, remaining as he projects to be an athletic rebounder who can make an impact in Masiello's rotation if given the opportunity. Diallo will wear No. 30 for the Jaspers, and could see action in their next contest Tuesday night at Marist.