ALBANY, N.Y.– The Manhattan College Jaspers begin their pursuit of history—a third consecutive MAAC Championship—on Thursday against Marist.
The game pits the Jaspers in a different position than the previous two seasons, where they entered the tournament as the favorites in 2014, and as one of the top candidates in 2015. This time around, the Jaspers come in with little noise, as the sixth-seed, after a season of ups and downs.
But despite the tempered expectations, the Jaspers have one thing to hang their hat on that none of the other 10 teams in the MAAC do: they’re the back-to-back champions and have a title to defend.
“We are the underdog in this tournament,” Shane Richards, Manhattan’s leading scorer said. “We are the champions and we are until someone knocks us off, but right now, I don’t really think anyone has us winning this thing except for us. That’s fine. We’ll take that role. We’ve done that before. … We’re just going to take this game by game and see what happens.”
In Marist, Manhattan faces a team that carries some momentum, having won its last two games. In last year’s tournament, the Red Foxes were in the exact same position, and knocked off six-seeded Quinnipiac in the first round.
“Well-coached, terrific shooting team, beat us here [at Manhattan], split this year,” Steve Masiello, Manhattan head coach said about Marist. “It’s going to be a very dangerous game for us. They’re a team that beat Quinnipiac in the six-11 last year. They have experience in this game. They know how to play. They know how to be ready, so they’re going to be ready to go. They’re going to come out and try to get us. We have to have total focus when it comes to them.”
Marist is led by Khallid Hart and Brian Parker, who pace the team in several offensive categories. Hart is among the league-leaders in scoring at 20.4 points per game, and Parker’s contributions garnered a spot on the All-MAAC Rookie Team.
Since the MAAC expanded to 11 teams in 2013, the 11-seed is 2-0 in first round games. Manhattan knows that despite the Red Foxes 7-22 record, they are not to be overlooked.
“You’ve got to take it one game at a time,” Richards said of Manhattan’s approach to the tournament. “You can’t look past Marist, they’re a great basketball team and are very capable of winning on any given day.”
Manhattan enters the contest losers of its last three games. In the three games, the Jaspers have been in prime position to win, but have blown second-half leads. Manhattan’s eight-man rotation has gotten out to strong starts in games, but lately, has run out of gas in the second half.
Against Iona on Feb. 26, Rich Williams scored 24 points in the first half, but managed just three in the second. Battling fatigue and staying focused is of utmost importance to Williams and the Jaspers.
“We lost a lot of close games this year because we made a lot of silly mistakes towards the end of the games,” Williams said. “Once we go in there with a clear head and a lot of discipline, I think we can repeat.”
Manhattan’s path to a three-peat starts against Marist, but will get even tougher if it manages to move on. A game against Siena, playing in its home court looms on Saturday, while matchups against Iona in the semifinals and Monmouth in the championship game are also possible.
A season that has been riddled with injuries and team defections have Manhattan in uncharted territory as the hunter and not the hunted. But Masiello and the Jaspers will welcome a championship, regardless of what kind of story-line is written.
“I think every team has had its own story and every team has kind of made its own movie,” Masiello said. “It’s just what do you like. Do you like a team that kind of has the talent, is supposed to do it and then does it? Maybe our first one [championship]. Or the second one: A team that has been through so much, figured it out and their bond got them through it. It’s just what you like.”