Looking at the standings and seeing the defending MAAC Champion Manhattan College Jaspers tied for fourth place is no surprise.
As strange as that sounds, especially given the high expectations of the Jaspers due to their success over the last two seasons, fourth-place in this year’s MAAC conference is not your typical fifth-place.
With only four games separating the first and ninth-place teams, the MAAC is up for grabs this season. The parity is so great that by the time this article is read the Jaspers can go up or down the standings given other results.
A losing streak can easily bury the Jaspers, but a winning streak at the right time can catapult the team in the standings, something head coach Steve Masiello has alluded to numerous times during the season.
“For us it’s a little different than the Big 10, Big 12 or ACC,” he said following a loss to Rutgers on Dec. 14, 2014. “It really comes down to who’s playing well in February and March.”
Less than a week later, on Dec. 20 Masiello once again reiterated his statement.
“Regardless of what all the experts think, for the most part in this conference, it comes down to January, February and that fun weekend in Albany this year,” he said following a win against Morgan State.
Masiello’s comment after the game against Morgan State came at a time when the Jaspers were 3-7 and had won just two of their eight non-conference games. At that point, Masiello and the team were looking forward to getting into the MAAC schedule, which they hoped would help turn their season around.
The MAAC schedule did just that for the Jaspers, who won five of their next six games to get to .500 for the first time all season.
Following the overtime victory against St. Peter’s on Jan. 16 that allowed Manhattan to reach .500, Masiello summed up what he’d been saying even during the losing stretch.
“Our teams I think play their best basketball come February, late January or February,” he said. “I think we’re improving in areas. We’re still not where we need to be. We have a ton of room for improvement, but our kids understand what needs to be done.”
But two loses after reaching 8-8 had the Jaspers at 8-10 and struggling to find consistency. The good news for Manhattan is that it remains within striking distance in the standings, but that still does not excuse the regression the team has taken from last year.
At this point last season, the Jaspers were in third place sitting just one game behind the conference leading Iona Gaels.
However, last year’s team was led by perhaps the greatest senior class in Manhattan history in Michael Alvarado, George Beamon and Rhamel Brown. The loss of those three players has been felt heavily on the team, which has struggled to find consistent scoring production.
This season, Manhattan’s 65.9 points per game fall nearly 12 points behind last season’s scoring average of 77.
But it would be foolish to continue to dwell on last season’s laurels and continue to lament the loss of Alvarado, Beamon and Brown. This season’s team unquestionably does not have the scoring prowess of last year’s team, but if there’s one thing it still has is its defensive intensity.
Masiello has instilled defense as the team’s identity since the moment he took over the program. And although he doesn’t have Beamon to lock up the opposing team’s best perimeter player or Brown to protect the rim and swat away shots whenever the defense broke down. He still has a large part of last season’s MAAC Championship team.
This team still has a championship DNA, which can pay dividends come time for the MAAC Tournament.
Of course, seeding can make or break a team’s chances during a tournament, but it’s important to remember that the Jaspers were the sixth seed heading into the 2013 MAAC Tournament and made it all the way to the championship game.
This year more than ever, seeding will not play as key of a role in determining who wins the championship as it has in the past. Seven of the 11 teams have a record of .500 or better in the MAAC, and Fairfield and St. Peter’s sit just two wins shy of .500. Last season, only five teams had a record of .500 or better in the conference.
The important games in late January and February that Masiello has been referencing all season long are fast approaching.
Manhattan has two key games this week against second place Monmouth and the team picked to finish second in the MAAC Preseason Poll: the Siena Saints.
The time is right to get hot.