Start the Countdown: Jasper Basketball Set to Return at End of the Month

by Pete Janny, Managing Editor & Sports Editor

The start of the college basketball season is less than a month away, and the clock is ticking. While Manhattan students will be vacating campus for Thanksgiving break, the school’s basketball teams will be getting back in the swing of playing competitive games again. That is, of course, if the novel coronavirus pandemic doesn’t get worse than it is from now until the season commences. 

Manhattan is gearing up for what should be an interesting season with no fans in the stands until Dec. 23 at the earliest. Consequently, the players who feed off the energy of the crowd will need to find new ways to stay motivated — on top of learning to train and play amid the threat of COVID-19. The tradition of home court advantage will suddenly become a moot point with no fans in the stands. But while the quiet atmosphere will be a factor to some degree, it will not be as consequential as many would assume, because a competitively balanced conference like the MAAC is hard to predict in any conditions — including in the throes of the Sixth Borough student section in Draddy. 

Manhattan fans will also be absent from all non-conference games this season — which begin on Nov. 25 for Division I College Basketball and last for less than two weeks. Both the Manhattan men’s and women’s teams have yet to publicize their non-conference schedules, but are expected to do so soon. The likelihood is that all non-conference games will be regional this season as a way to avoid unnecessary travel — and thus certain quarantine mandates. 

Manhattan fans should expect the annual meeting with the Fordham Rams to happen, but beyond that there is little indication of what else will happen. Zach Braziller, a sports reporter at the New York Post, has hinted on Twitter that the Manhattan men’s team will play St. John’s this season for the first time in a long time. However, that is nothing more than a rumor at this point.

Just because the fan experience won’t be the same, that does not take away from the ultimate goal of winning. There is no such thing as a constraint on the competitive element, even in light of the collective responsibility of fighting against COVID-19. The opportunity to play the game they love again could be the ideal dose of normalcy for student-athletes— and perhaps coaches and fans — to stay sane after will be seven months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. 

Both the men’s and women’s teams will enter the season starting on different wavelengths. Last year, the Lady Jaspers were the most dangerous team in the MAAC by season’s end before COVID-19 hit and ended their season itself — less than an hour before tip-off against Quinnipiac in the MAAC Quarterfinals. The team finished with a 15-14 ledger, including a 12-8 showing in the MAAC, giving a preview of their bright future led by the likes of stars Courtney Warley and Emily LaPointe. But the sting of how last year ended will likely be a motivating factor this season. 

Their 2020-2021 MAAC season is set to open at Rider on Dec. 9. It will be an interesting first test against a Rider program who shared a piece of the MAAC regular season championship last season with Marist. But while the Jaspers are trending up, the Broncs will have a new look this year after losing a star-studded senior class from last season headlined by Stella Johnson, the reigning nation’s leading scorer in Division I and a current member of the Washington Mystics of the WNBA. 

After their opening two-game road trip culminates at Siena on Dec. 12, the Lady Jaspers will get their first taste of action at Draddy against a formidable Marist program on Dec.19. The team then hits the road again for a tilt at Fairfield on Dec. 30 to cap off the hardest stretch of their regular season — at least on paper. Rider, Marist, Siena, and Fairfield all finished in the top six of the MAAC standings at the end of last campaign. 

The Manhattan basketball teams will be back playing games at Draddy Gym by the end of the month for the start of an unprecedented season for college basketball due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The only negative is that there will be no fans allowed in the stands until at least Dec. 23, as mandated by the MAAC Conference.
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Among the core of key pieces from last season who won’t be returning to head coach Heather Vulin’s squad include Julie Hoier and Tuuli Menna, both of whom have graduated. Despite those notable losses, Pamela Miceus has returned for a graduate year to help stabilize the front court, and the program has welcomed three freshmen. The Lady Jaspers haven’t started a season with as much expectations as this year in quite some time, which is a huge testament to the job Vulin has done since taking over in 2016. 

On the men’s side, there is newfound hope for a program that has finished under .500 in each of the past five seasons. The program’s defeat at the hands of Siena in the MAAC Quarterfinals last March is now a distant memory, and there looks to be greater upside to this year’s iteration after adding seven new players in total from the high school level, NJCAA, and other Division 1 programs. The marquee additions all came from the Division 1 transfer market: Samba Diallo from UMass; Anthony Nelson from Seton Hall; and Jason Douglas-Stanley from George Mason. These three players, along with some of the other newcomers, figure to play important roles on a reloaded Jaspers now without notable contributors Pauly Paulicap, Christian Hinckson, and Tykei Greene — who all transferred out.

“It’s very important to my success and our success,” Masiello said to The Quadrangle, in reference to four of his six new players hailing from New York, with the other two coming from nearby New Jersey. “We want to make Manhattan a top destination for New York talent, whether that be via transfers or high school recruits. You look at the likes of Shane Richards, Ashton Pankey, Jermaine Lawrence, Rich Williams, all those New York guys that came here. We just always want to have a presence in New York and always be a destination for guys to come play.”

There may be nobody more excited to get started again than head coach Steve Masiello, who is in his tenth season at the helm of the program. Masiello, now 43 years old, is looking to get the program back to similar heights he had them at when the program won back-to-back MAAC Championships in 2014 and 2015. 

After receiving a contract extension last February, Masiello hopes to do good on the renewal of trust placed in him. To his benefit — and credit — Masiello will be working with the most talented roster he’s had in years — which should go a long way in helping him rejuvenate the program. 

“The thing I’m happy with is we’re back to being able to play basketball,” Masiello said. “We’re having fun and we’re doing the things that we love to do. We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of talent, but we have to work to jell and get our chemistry up. We really have five new guys that will play for us. It’s a whole new system. We know we have a lot of work to do, but we put in the time, put in the work. If we’re doing our part, great things can happen.”

The most talked about date on the schedule is Jan. 22. Not simply because it’s against hated rival Iona, but because it will feature a memorable reunion between Masiello and new Iona head coach Rick Pitino. The matchup will mark the start of a new chapter between both coaches as counterparts in the same conference, after Masiello won a national championship as a player for Pitino at Kentucky in 1996 before working on his coaching staff at Louisville. 

Theoretically, the hardest stretch of the regular season should be late January into February when the Jaspers host Iona, embark on the annual Buffalo roadtrip, and then welcome Siena to town on Feb 2. By that point, the real identity of this Jaspers team could be known, with 10 conference games already in the books by then. 

But before then, MAAC play for the men’s team opens at Quinnipiac on Dec. 8 against a Bobcats team tabbed by experts to place near the bottom of the MAAC standings. Then, after a trip to Poughkeepsie, New York to play Marist on Dec. 11, the Jaspers will take the floor at Draddy Gym for the first time since last season’s Senior Day match-up with Fairfield on March 6. The long-awaited return to Draddy will be a bittersweet moment after a whirlwind year.

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States is surging again in the midst of temperature drops in places like the northeast. On Friday, Oct. 30, the United States recorded a new daily high of 97,088 new cases, according to CNBC. Some schools have decided to take preemptive measures such as Bethune-Cookman University — even if that means at the expense of playing sports. According to ESPN, on Monday, October 26, the small private university in Daytona Beach, Florida declared that their sports teams will be sidelined for the rest of the school year due to COVID-19 complications — making them the first Division 1 school to do so. The purported catalyst for the decision was a recent outbreak on campus. 

Whether more schools choose to follow in Bethune-Cookman’s footsteps remains to be seen. Manhattan has so far had success limiting the caseload on campus, despite it coming at the expense of no fall sports this year. But even if the Manhattan campus stays relatively healthy, the outlook for playing sports will be just as dependent on the conditions of other campuses. Ultimately, the NCAA — in consultation with government authorities — will make the final call. With schedules released, the plan for basketball is to play games at almost all costs — especially less than a month out. The threshold for cases that could cause a reversal in course is unknown.

Only time will tell if college basketball can actually co-exist with the pernicious effects of COVID-19. The NCAA may have a good enough plan in place to survive the storm, but it won’t be able to outrun the complications that will arise. Assuming a season is played, there will be unavoidable disturbances and setbacks. But in the end, it will all boil down to how well the NCAA and its affiliated conferences respond to these curveballs, such as abrupt cancellations and outbreaks within teams. The fact is that an infrastructure for a basketball season is in place and the waiting game has started. COVID-19 will dictate the rest.