Manhattan missed a golden chance to move into sole possession of second place by splitting its two games, and there is no other way to put it.
After beating Canisius on Friday, the Jaspers headed into Sunday’s tilt against Rider needing a win to break a tie with Rider and sit in second place all by themselves.
But things did not go as planned and Manhattan was defeated by Rider, meaning the Jaspers now trail the Broncs by one game. Even worse, the Jaspers technically sit one game back by losing the season series 2-0 to Rider. The Broncs now hold the tiebreaker, which means they really lead Manhattan by two games.
Throughout Manhattan’s early season struggles on offense, the team still had one thing to fall back on: its defense.
Despite its 2-7 start to the season, the Jaspers were still within striking distance in most of those games because of their defense. During that stretch only twice did the Jaspers allow their opponents to score over 70 points.
Then, the Jaspers turned their season around and reached the .500 mark at 8-8. However, what followed was a strange five-game stretch. The team went 3-2 and went on a tear offensively, but struggled on defense, allowing opponents to score 74.8 points per game.
But now the Jaspers have reached a middle ground and have found the right balance between offense and defense. The Jaspers held Canisius and Rider to a combined 42 percent from the field.
Canisius shot a woeful 31 percent against the Jaspers on Friday and had it not been for a blistering 11-13 start from the field by Rider, the Jaspers would have held the Broncs to 43 percent. Instead, the Broncs shot 53 percent.
But as head coach Steve Masiello pointed out after the win against Canisius, all he can ask for is that the opponents are being forced to take tough shots. Canisius took tough shots and missed. Rider took tough shots and made them. That is basketball.
“I’m fine with a lot of shots that go in,” Masiello said after the win against Canisius. “When we watch film at half time and I see 17-footers challenged going in. The reality of it was that our defense in the first half was the exact same the first six minutes of the second half.”
“The difference was, statistically, which I’ve studied for 17 years, I know those shots aren’t going to beat you,” he added. “So when it goes in we’re ok with it. We say ‘challenged 17-footer, we’ll live with it’ and we move on from it.”
A key component to Manhattan’s defense has been the turnovers it has created.
If the season ended today, the Jaspers would eclipse the 15.6 opponent turnovers per game—good for eighth in the nation—that last season’s team caused. The 2014-2015 Jaspers rank fourth in the nation forcing their opponents to 16.9 turnovers per game.
Turnovers have always played a part in Masiello’s defenses, but it seems that this season it has been more apparent than ever.
During games, the Jaspers have switched in and out of various zone defenses and a man-to-man defense, causing much confusion in their opponents.
Even in a loss against Rider, Manhattan forced 12 turnovers. And after the game Rider head coach Kevin Baggett had nothing but praise for Manhattan’s defense.
“That zone is tough to kind of break and figure out and their pressure,” Baggett said.
Baggett alluded to what is still Manhattan’s number one source of turnovers: the patented Jasper full-court press.
In the game against Canisius, several times Manhattan forced Jan Grzelinski to take the ball up the court. A Manhattan guard would take away his drive towards the right side, forcing him left and once he began to dribble with his left, a Manhattan player would step up and double-team him.
This sequence was repeated numerous times and resulted in several turnovers. When it did not result in a turnover, it at least did enough to create chaos and break up Canisius’ attacks.
Of course, against better ball handlers and decision makers the press will not always work. But as long as the Jaspers can continue to turnover opponents in the double digits only good things can come from that.
The split pushes Manhattan’s record to 13-3 in February and March since last season.
This column has mentioned it numerous times and it will continue to do so. So here it goes once again: Masiello has stated all season long that what matters is how the team is playing in February and March.
Despite the loss to Rider, Masiello has much to be excited about as the Jaspers have won four of the last five heading into what is perhaps the biggest game of the season on Friday night at home against their bitter rivals the Iona Gaels.
The team sits three games behind Iona for first place and if it has any aspirations of being the one seed at the MAAC Tournament, a win against the Gaels is a good place to start.
The Jaspers will still have five games left in their schedule after facing the Gaels, but three of those are on the road, including a game at Iona. Maintaining a winning record over the final few games of the season is of utter importance for the Jaspers, who by dropping a game or two can fall in the standings.
The MAAC is really close this season and seeding might not be as crucial as people like to make it out to be. But the fact remains that if a team has a chance to be the number one seed heading into a tournament, they do all they can to finish in first place. That is no different for the Jaspers.