Manhattan Basketball Shakes Off Some Rust in Opening Weekend Series

by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor

The Jaspers (1-1, 1-1 MAAC) fell victim to a combination of hot shooting from Rider (1-3, 1-1 MAAC) and the onset of early-season jitters on Friday night as the Broncs took the MAAC opener by a score of 82-64 in Draddy Gym. However, they didn’t let that disappointment be a distraction on Saturday night when they bounced back with an impressive 87-77 win against the Broncs to split the two games in Riverdale. 

For a large portion of the game on Friday night the Jaspers played like a team who had never stepped foot on the court together, which was a painful truth too real to cover up. But most importantly, the feedback they got provided a necessary barometer for where they are as a team and where they need to be. 

Head Coach Steve Masiello was able to see the good and bad of his team on Friday. The goal was to get a better handle on the possibilities for the rotation and the extent to which the team’s on-court principles were effective. Masiello’s coaching philosophy has always been rooted in defense, as evidenced by the hard-nosed mentality of his teams over his 10 years at the school. Weirdly enough, the biggest disappointment from Friday was the team’s defensive troubles, which contributed to the visitors scoring a season high in points and saw point guard Dwight Murray Jr. come three assists short of a triple-double. 

After falling behind 7-0 early on Friday night, Manhattan found some life and was able to muster a lead six times throughout the first half to get to within 41-38 at the break. 

But the second half was when the game got away from Manhattan on Friday night. The Jaspers couldn’t hang around with the offensive explosiveness of a Broncs team that erupted at the outset of the second half. Rider shot the ball at a 60 percent clip in the second stanza led by aggressive guards Murray Jr., Rodney Henderson Jr., and Ings, who combined for 47 points in game one. 

In particular, Murray Jr. was a constant threat to the Jaspers’ defense by using his speed and scoring creativity to his advantage. The numbers on Friday night said it all about the Rider guard who ended with 20 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists for a player listed at six feet. An underrated transfer, Murray Jr. played two seasons at Incarnate Word before arriving to a Rider program projected to finish last in the MAAC this season. So far Murray Jr. has been a steadying presence for this underdog Rider team that lost Frederick Scott and Dimencio Vaughn to Boston College and Ole Miss, respectively, in search of a bigger stage like former jasper Pauly Paulicap chose to undertake at DePaul.  

While Murray Jr. was grabbing rebounds at will and dictating the tempo of the game, the Jaspers were never able to find any real success in the rebounding department on their way to losing the battle of the boards 47-28.  The rebounding margin presaged the Jaspers’ losing fate.

In his first game as a Jasper, Ant Nelson made the most of the opportunity to start and looked like a player who will be a real difference maker this season. In setting the tone early on Friday night, Nelson had a stretch in which he scored 11 of 16 points for the Jaspers in the first half, while showing off his ability to shoot threes, pass, and attack the rim. He ended his debut with 19 points and then followed that up with a career-high 27 points in Saturday night’s tilt. The package of skills Nelson possesses is rare for a player in the MAAC conference, and is something Masiello admitted to marveling at across the first two games of the season.

A few other Manhattan newcomers enjoyed moderate success in the series with Rider. 

Manhattan won one and loss one this weekend in their series with Rider at Draddy Gym. The games marked the first time the Jaspers took the court this season after being quarantined for 14 days in late November into early December due to a positive coronavirus case within the team. (Courtesy/Go Jaspers) .

Junior guard Jason Douglas-Stanley wanted a fresh start at Manhattan after coming over from George Mason and seems to have found it early on. The native of Mount Vernon, New York scored 14 points in 32 minutes on Friday night, and added 11 points to his name in the second game. His role on the team is expected to be someone who provides quick points in bunches. With a legacy of being a scorer dating back to his high school days at Mount Vernon High School, Douglas-Stanley has shown he’s not afraid to shoot across his first two games in the Kelly Green and White even if those shots come at the expense of his overall field goal percentage. His 11 points in game two were a solid contribution despite him shooting 2-of-10 from three-point range. 

It shouldn’t be forgotten either what Marques Watson or Samba Diallo did in their first tastes of MAAC basketball. Watson, who joined from Miami Dade College, supplies length with his six-foot-five frame that he combines with a nice repertoire of skills. Watson scored 10 points in game one and received enough playing time—an average of 22 minutes across both games— to suggest that he may be one of the first players off the bench for Masiello moving forward. Players like Watson and Douglas-Stanley can benefit from Masiello’s known tendency of making quick substitutions. 

The other neophyte that made his introduction to Jasper Nation was Diallo, a UMass transfer who is now two seasons and two games into his college career. Diallo was relatively quiet with his face-up game in the low post area and at times looked like he was forcing things. But after going scoreless on Friday night, he bounced back with nine points and five rebounds on 4-of-4 shooting in 31 minutes in game two. Masiello is expecting good things from Diallo, who brings value with his scrappy play and imposing presence anywhere inside the three-point line. 

Overall, the on-court product on Saturday night was night and day for the Jaspers compared to game one and resulted in the first win of the season. The team shot 57 percent from the field and took control of the game after stringing together 11 unanswered points that spanned the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. Masiello could live with giving up 77 points, for now. 

“I’m really proud of the kids and how they responded,” Masiello said after Saturday night’s game, according to Jaden Daly of A Daly Dose of Hoops. “Defensively we still don’t have an identity, but offensively, though, at times last year I didn’t think we could score 87 in two games. So we did some good things on offense, and now we have to get into a defensive mindset to go with that. But it was a good bounce-back win, and I’m happy for them. They responded to my challenge, so kudos to them.”

The Jaspers played with much more control and composure, which translated into a more consistent performance. The fulcrum of Manhattan’s system of play was Nelson, who played so well in game two that it felt like when he wasn’t scoring he was instead naturally impacting the game in other ways with his court vision and sharp passing. To complement his 27 points and four assists, Nelson also had a few nice box-outs for six rebounds that further illustrated his grasp of the fundamentals of the game. That’s not to say Masiello thinks Nelson is a finished product with the amount of talent he boasts. 

“I haven’t had a guy like him probably ever,” Masiello said. “He’s special with the ball in his hands, but he has a lot of work to do. He’s got great size, he’s got an uncanny ability to get in the lane and make plays. The bar has been set for him, and that’s why he came here. Now he’s got to deliver on that.”

Another bright spot on Saturday was the play of junior Elijah Buchanan. While his outside shot is still a work in a progress, Buchanan regained his confidence in a big way on Saturday. He played like one of the best players on the court en route to registering a career-high 20 points and seven rebounds, which was the same number of boards he corralled less than 24 hours earlier. Buchanan’s natural feel for the game was best displayed during a play in the second half in which he dribbled the length of the court and converted a tough and-one at the hoop. The ensuing made free throw extended the Jaspers lead to 55-45 with 14:25 left to play in regulation to guide the Jaspers to victory. 

“I think EB’s on track to have a big year,” Masiello said about Buchanan after Saturday night’s game. “He’s had a great offseason, his mentality has been great, he’s fun to coach, he’s a basketball junkie. He had a bad night last night for whatever reason, but I’m happy for him to get a win and have this success.”

Preseason All-MAAC second team selection Warren Williams took a step in the right direction in game two after an inauspicious showing in game one. He finished with 10 points, five rebounds, and two blocks, one of which was a ferocious rejection on Ings that led to a reverse layup for Buchanan at the other end. Williams has become even more important to Manhattan’s chances of success than he was in his first two seasons, thanks in large part to the departure of Paulicap. He will be heavily relied upon to anchor the team in the paint on the strength of his physicality and adept touch around the rim. There’s little doubt about how good Williams could be on offense, but he could still improve as a rebounder and interior defender.

“I think he’s got to establish himself as one of the best bigs in this league, so I want to see him be more dominant.” Masiello said of Williams. 

Considering the Jaspers didn’t play before the Rider series, they will take the split in the back-to-back knowing that they did a lot of good things to build off of. While they probably won’t score as much as 87 points in most games, the offensive potential is clear with this Manhattan team. 

Another priority for Masiello is making sure his team stays conditioned so that they will have enough gas in the tank during league games. Avoiding another team quarantine due to COVID-19 would go a long way toward ensuring they have the stamina to compete at a high level. 

“I thought our conditioning was the biggest thing,” Masiello said after surpassing his mentor and former Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez for most wins of any coach in the history of Draddy Gym with 69. “I thought we were in really bad shape from the quarantine shutdown, so I’m a little disappointed in that aspect of it, but we came out of the weekend with a split and we’ve got to build on it.”

Manhattan will next host Marist on Saturday, Dec. 19 and Sunday, Dec. 20 with both games starting at 2 pm. The Jaspers were originally supposed to travel to face Quinnipiac next weekend until the Bobcats were subjected to a mandatory quarantine.