Before the season started, the Manhattan Jaspers were picked to finish third in the MAAC Preseason Coaches’ Poll.
The end result of Manhattan’s 2014-2015 regular season: third-place.
The Jaspers head into the MAAC Tournament as the third-seed after defeating the Quinnipiac Bobcats, 69-65, on Sunday in the last home game of the season.
For senior Donovan Kates, the postseason could not come at a better time.
“I feel like we’re coming along great,” Kates said. “I feel like we’re right where we need to be right now. We’re starting to mesh, starting to gel. The younger guys are coming along, and we can go up there and throw 10 or 11 bodies at each team. We’ll be ready to go. We’re going to be fresh. We’re going to keep applying pressure on teams, and just have fun and win, hopefully.”
Many might see a third-place finish as a step down for the Jaspers, especially given the fact that they finished second in the standings last season and then went on to win the MAAC Tournament. But this third-place finish is worthy of an asterisk.
The way the Jaspers were able to bounce back after a rough 2-7 start to the season merits some praise.
During the first nine games of the season, there was not much to like about Manhattan. Its defense was fairly decent but not as good as it was last season.
In the first nine games this season, the Jaspers allowed opponents to score 64.8 points per game, but to their credit they forced 18.3 turnovers per game.
On the offensive end was where the team struggled the most. The absence of Michael Alvarado, George Beamon and Rhamel Brown was felt heavily as the team averaged just 61.2 points per game during its 2-7 start.
All the scoring came from three players in Emmy Andujar, Ashton Pankey and Shane Richards, and the team lacked a consistent fourth or fifth option.
Whereas last season, Andujar; Pankey and Richards took turns being the fourth, fifth, even sixth option at times. Not one player on the team during the first nine games made his case to be that guy.
But throughout the rough start, one thing was clear: once the MAAC regular season kicked into gear, things would change.
Manhattan finished its brutal nonconference schedule at 4-7, but had much to look forward to heading into MAAC play.
That was made apparent with a 5-2 start to the MAAC regular season.
Fast-forward to now, 20 games after the 2-7 start, and Manhattan has finished its regular season 14-6 after starting-off so poorly.
Its reward for a third-place finish: a first-round bye and the luxury of avoiding Iona all the way until the MAAC championship game.
It is no secret that both teams, given the rivalry that has built up over the last few years, prefer not to meet each other early in the tournament. Had Manhattan finished fourth, it would have potentially met Iona in the MAAC semifinals.
After the loss at Iona last Friday, Masiello blatantly stated how he felt about meeting Iona again.
“I’m not a guy that believes in seeing good teams three times,” Masiello said. “I’ll be much happier not playing Iona again and seeing them go out early. I’m not into the sizzle factor. I’m into trying to win games.”
Of course, all the talk about a potential third game depended on Manhattan and Iona winning its quarterfinals matchups. In fact, a potential encounter in the championship game also depends on both taking care of its respective business.
The games are not won on paper and Manhattan still will certainly be facing tough opponents in the tournament. However, now as the third-seed, Manhattan has a much more favorable path to the title.
Its first game will be on Saturday March 7 against the winner of Marist and Quinnipiac.
Marist comes into the tournament as the last seed (11) and Manhattan will be perfectly fine with having to face it instead of Quinnipiac. But if it’s the Bobcats the Jaspers have to face, they proved in the last game of the season that they can beat them.
The Bobcats are known for their rebounding prowess and that will be a scary proposition for Manhattan, especially since the team lacks height. However, as it proved last season, Manhattan can handle Quinnipiac.
In their run to the MAAC championship last season, the Jaspers defeated Quinnipiac in the semifinals and that team had a rebounding machine in Ike Azotam who averaged 10.2 boards per game.
The matchup will be tough, regardless of who Manhattan plays, and that is for sure.
The semifinals are where things can get a bit weird though. On paper, the favorite to reach that stage is the No. 2 seed Rider Broncs.
However, no one would be surprised if the Broncs were knocked off in the quarterfinals, now that Matt Lopez, their leading scorer and rebounder is out for the season with a torn ACL.
Who will knock them off is uncertain, as the Broncs will face the winner of Saint Peter’s and Fairfield.
But if Rider does live up to expectations and reaches the MAAC semifinals, it is definitely a game that Manhattan can win. Rider swept the season series against Manhattan, but both games went into overtime and were tightly contested.
Now, without the 7-footer Lopez, Rider will become much more of a guard-oriented team. That will play perfectly into the hands of the Jaspers, who will look to press Rider’s guards to create turnovers.
The path is not set for Manhattan to reach the championship game. No team’s is.
But the fact remains that as the third-seed, the Jaspers have a much better chance to make some noise than as the fourth-seed.