The Manhattan Jaspers knew it would be an arduous task to win their third consecutive MAAC Championship.
The loses of Emmy Andujar, Donovan Kates, and Ashton Pankey would be hard to replace. The Iona Gaels would still be a force to be reckoned with. The emergence of the Monmouth Hawks as a legitimate title-contender wouldn’t make things easier either. And of course, a difficult season in the MAAC would be the norm.
But what the Jaspers didn’t expect was a campaign as strange as this one has been; A season that has been riddled with injuries and departures from the team. After starting the season with 14 players on the roster, the Jaspers are down to just 10 healthy bodies.
What to many teams would seem like an insurmountable hurdle, has just become an added chip on the shoulders of the back-to-back champs, who are as hungry as ever to win another title. Manhattan’s Tenacious Ten: Samson Akilo, Thomas Capuano, Calvin Crawford, Matt Maloney, Shane Richards, Chris Rivera, RaShawn Stores, Zane Waterman, Rich Williams, and Tyler Wilson have played with a grit and a drive this season that has been appreciated by head coach Steve Masiello.
“I’m happy with what they’re giving us,” Masiello said about his team after a win against Niagara on Jan. 17. “We understand we’re undermanned. We’re only playing seven or eight guys. That’s not what we’ve ever done here. We’ve always played 10 or 11, but we’re doing a good job adjusting and changing as we go.”
The trimmed roster and lack of depth has given several Manhattan players a chance to shine with more playing time. Perhaps no one on the team has benefited more than Capuano, a freshman who figured to be a contributor to the team at the start of the season, but not a player who would average 26.3 minutes per game.
The guard has made the most of his opportunity, averaging 1.7 steals per game—good enough for second in the MAAC—and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. At times throughout the season, Capuano has closed out games for the Jaspers, and has demonstrated a poise and intelligence that is rare in a 19-year old.
His biggest moment came on Jan. 22 against Monmouth, when he scored 11 points and notched two steals, including the dagger three as the shot clock expired, which gave the Jaspers a five-point lead in the final minute of the game.
“I’m just trying to do anything I can to help the team,” Capuano said after the win against Monmouth. “Whatever it is, on defense or pretty much hit open shots. I’m glad that I got this opportunity.”
Capuano, much like players such as Akilo, Crawford and Waterman, have moved up in the pecking order thanks to injuries and departures.
The departure of Jermaine Lawrence at the start of the season was the first in a chain of unfortunate events for the 2015-2016 Jaspers. His absence, coupled with numerous injuries, contributed to a slow start to the campaign.
But then, things got even worse. Carlton Allen left the team on Dec. 14, leaving the team thin on big men. One of the potential replacements for Allen, Ak Ojo, was dealing with nagging injuries at the time, making matters even more complicated. On Jan. 15, after a loss against Canisius, Masiello confirmed that Ojo, along with fellow Nigerian Samson Usilo, would miss the rest of the season.
“Those are two of our top probably six guys,” Masiello said about losing Ojo and Usilo. “But no excuses will ever justify failure, so we have to figure it out and keep moving.”
The Jaspers have done just that, getting the most out of their 10-man roster. Players like Williams and Wilson, two of the eight scholarship student-athletes on the team, have made the leap from contributors to key cogs in the lineup.
Williams has made a strong case for the MAAC’s Sixth Man of the Year award, averaging a career high 15.7 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game. Wilson leads the MAAC with 5.8 assists per game, and has paced Manhattan’s defense with 1.4 steals per game.
Alongside Williams and Wilson are the leaders of the team in Richards and Stores, who have been crucial to Manhattan’s success. Richards ranks among the leaders in the MAAC in points per game and 3-pointers made, while Stores continues to do what he does best. The veteran point guard keeps playing intense defense, drawing charges at important times in the game, and hitting big-time shots. So far, Stores is averaging career-high numbers all across the board in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, rebounds per game, assists per game, points per game, and steals per game.
However, Stores know that he and Manhattan can still improve.
“We could get better,” Stores said on Jan. 17, “a lot better. Right now we’re going through growing pains. We have to get the younger guys ready and we’ll be fine.”
Stores’ career-year has been vital for Masiello, who has always been able to count on Stores’ defense and big-shot making ability, but has asked him to play a new role this year due to the loss of many players.
“The reality of it is we’re missing three of our top starters, if not three of our top six definitely,” Masiello said after a win against Siena on Jan. 4. “You put any team, I don’t care what level, in that situation, it takes you a while to find out who you are, how to grind. RaShawn’s grind with Emmy [Andujar] and AP Pankey] is a lot different than his grind this year. RaShawn’s grind when we had Jermaine [Lawrence], Sammy Usilo and Ojo was a lot different, so he has to adjust his grind I have to adjust how I approach the team. Shane [Richards] has to adjust how he leads the team, so I think we’re finding out what works.”
But Stores and Manhattan’s Tenacious Ten have acclimated well to their new roles. The group has won five of the last seven and has the Jaspers in fifth place in the MAAC, just two games behind conference-leading Iona.
Manhattan’s 5-4 record is deceiving, as the team has lost three conference games by five or less points. Masiello believes that the Jaspers could easily be 7-2 or 8-1. But regardless of their record, he knows his team will be dangerous come tournament time.
“I like being where we are,” Masiello said on Jan. 17. “What happens is that you just get better and get better. Human nature is that you get a team that’s 4-4 and you’re going to exhale. Monmouth is not sneaking up on anyone. Iona is not sneaking up on anyone. I’m not saying we’re going to sneak up on anyone. … I’ve been doing this long enough to know that eventually you get those. So let’s just hope we get them at the right time.”