by, Pete Janny, Sports Editor
The Jaspers are set to play at Saint Peter’s on Friday and Saturday, barring any abrupt changes to the MAAC schedule that have become a regular occurrence. Either way, by the time Manhattan takes the court next it will be at least two weeks since their last appearance, which was a 58-55 win over Niagara on Jan. 16. That victory extended their winning streak to three games which is their longest of the season.
The Jaspers were given an unexpected rest this past weekend when their series with Monmouth was postponed due to a COVID-19 scare within the Hawks program that was later revealed to be a false positive. The matchups between the two schools have been pushed to Friday, Feb. 5 and Saturday, Feb. 6 with a 9 pm start time in both cases.
“We thought we were going to have another opponent on Sunday, but that program had an issue with COVID, so we kind of got cancelled twice this weekend,” Masiello told reporters during a zoom press conference for MAAC coaches on Tuesday morning. “The team that stays ready will have a chance to win it at the end.”
Just like many other teams, Manhattan’s upcoming schedule is pretty packed in the stretch ahead. As exhausting as these ever-changing schedules may look on paper, every team needs to continue to take the cards being dealt to them amidst these trying times. After all, the survival of the season is dependent on equal amounts of investment being made by every program. And if that means having to play five games in seven days along the way, then so be.
“I didn’t think [Commissioner Rich Ensor] would give me five games in seven days, but I still love him,” Masiello said jokingly to reporters. “We’re trying to be like water… be adaptable, be fluid, be flexible and just worry about what we’re doing.”
While the Jaspers were sidelined, Saint Peter’s had an interesting weekend at first-place Siena as the Peacocks returned from a 20 day pause due to COVID-19 concerns. They stunned Siena in the opener, using their physical style of play to pick up a 68-62 win despite reigning MAAC player of the year Jalen Pickett returning from injury after missing Siena’s previous three games. Although Siena would get revenge the next night by beating the Peacocks 47-40 in an ugly game, the Peacocks certainly came away from that series feeling optimistic about where they stand in the MAAC.
For the betterment of themselves and their other MAAC adversaries, the Peacocks were successful in proving that Siena isn’t indomitable like many thought they were. They took it to the Saints and exposed weaknesses that became even more glaring by the fact that Pickett was clearly still shaking off some rust. Saint Peter’s did a good job containing Pickett, similar to what Manhattan did to Niagara’s Marcus Hammond recently. In both cases, Pickett nor Hammond were able to score more than 11 points and those shortcomings made a big difference in the positive outcomes for Manhattan and Saint Peter’s.
Teams like Manhattan and Saint Peter’s are known for making life hard for the opponent’s offense. More often than not, they may fall short of beating you with their offense, but they don’t tend to lose focus defensively. That factor alone is what makes their upcoming matchup so intriguing.
Manhattan and Saint Peter’s are ranked third and fourth respectively in opponents points-per-game, with the former at 64.6 and the latter at 65.2. Among the good things they do defensively is block shots, as shown by big men KC Ndefo and Warren Williams. Ndefo leads the country at 4.1 rejections-per-game, while Williams is in fourth place in the MAAC with 1.8. Before this season, Williams had somewhat been lost in the shadow of former Jasper Pauly Paulicap, whose shot-blocking prowess became a national highlight reel on ESPN. With Paulicap taking his talents to DePaul, Williams has had more of a chance to emerge on the defensive end, as seen with his improvements in shot-blocking and rebounding this season. From last season to this season, Williams is averaging a full block more per game and has more than doubled his rebounding average to just over seven per game.
Don’t forget the steals, either. Manhattan is third in the MAAC in robberies while Saint Peter’s is in second at 7.44 and 7.92 steals-per-game, respectively. Elijah Buchanan has excelled in that area, ranking second in the MAAC with 2.1 steals-per-game on his way to becoming arguably Manhattan’s best two-way player. The Jaspers will also have to keep tabs on Ndefo’s quick hands, because he too is high up there in steals with 1.5 per game, making it no coincidence as to why he was named MAAC Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Already in his third season as head coach, 44-year-old Shaheen Holloway is considered by many to be a rising star in the coaching ranks after he led the Peacocks to a 17-12 record last season with a 14-6 finish in the MAAC that was good for second place. After a standout playing career at Seton Hall, Holloway worked on Kevin Willard’s staff at both Iona and Seton Hall before being hired at Saint Peter’s in April 2018.
There is an undeniable overlap between Holloway and Steve Masiello’s coaching styles, given that the Jaspers head coach also worked with Willard back when they were both on Rick Pitino’s staff at Louisville.
Holloway voiced his respect for Masiello and the way he prepares his teams when talking about the upcoming matchup between the Jaspers and Peacocks.
“As far as Manhattan it’s gonna be a war,” Holloway told reporters during his media availability. “Steve does a great job and I think they’re starting to play the way he wants them to play.”
Besides Masiello, Holloway knows another familiar face in Riverdale nowadays. That other face is Manhattan point guard Ant Nelson, who also used to play at Seton Hall. Holloway helped recruit Nelson to Seton hall a few years ago and has continued to follow his career since then. That relationship comes full circle this weekend when they will be looking to get the better of one another.
“I recruited Anthony Nelson to Seton Hall so I know all about his game,” Holloway said of Nelson, who leads Manhattan in scoring with 14.4 points-per-game. “I’m a big fan of his, and I think he’s starting to show what he can do there. We gotta understand what we’re getting ourselves into.”
Holloway is probably well aware of what his team is getting themselves into this weekend. But if he isn’t quite sure, there’s no need to look further than the scrappy style his own team plays with. Expect both teams to look to beat one another other by doing most of the same things, which means a lot of blocks, steals, rebounds, and hustle plays. Safe to say don’t expect any high-scoring games, which may be as unlikely for this matchup than any other the MAAC has to offer.
There’s Masiello versus Holloway, Nelson versus Holloway and Williams versus Ndefo. Those smaller battles add to the larger war that is Manhattan versus Saint Peter’s. May the best defense win.