The Manhattan Jaspers, winners of two of the last three MAAC tournaments, had a season to forget in 2016-17. Senior swingman Rich Williams underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in early November and never made it on the court this season, instead opting for a medical redshirt with hopes of returning to a senior-laden squad next year.
By virtue of losing a coin flip tiebreaker to Marist, the Jaspers (5-15) enter this year’s MAAC tournament as the #11 seed and will match up with #6 Rider in the tournament’s opening round Thursday night at 9:00 p.m.
Player to watch: #4 Zane Waterman, Jr. F
The Jaspers are led by Zavier Turner, a transfer from Ball State University. The junior averages 15.1 points per game and 3.3 assists per game, topping the squad in both categories. Fellow junior Zane Waterman checks in at 14.5 ppg along with a team-leading 7.1 rebounds per contest, and was named to the all-MAAC Third Team earlier this week.
While Turner and Waterman have been consistent performers all season long, the depth of the Jaspers’ roster has not approached the level of its past championship runs. Calvin Crawford and Aaron Walker Jr. rank third and fourth on the squad with 9.4 and 8.6 ppg respectively, but enter the postseason on hot streaks. Crawford has averaged 16.0 ppg over his last three contests, while Walker has scored 15.0 ppg over the same time frame.
Defense remains key to success for the Jaspers, who employ a pressing system in the mold of Louisville. Head coach Steve Masiello, who was an assistant with the Cardinals before accepting the head position at Manhattan in 2011, stressed the importance of defensive intensity after the final game of the regular season, a 72-51 loss at Iona.
“We’re not built to, and nor will I ever build to say ‘let’s get 92 and let them get 90,’” Masiello said. “It’s just not who I am philosophically. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t know how to play that way. When you don’t get stops, I don’t care how many scoring options you have; in our system, it’s not going to equate to success. It’s about getting stops.”
According to KenPom.com, the Jaspers rank ninth the MAAC in defensive efficiency during league play, a far cry from the success of recent years and their lowest ranking since finishing last among ten teams in Masiello’s first year at the helm. The team also checks in at the bottom of the league in offensive efficiency over the conference season.
Manhattan’s defensive pressure has it ranked third in the league with a 19.6% defensive turnover rate, but that rate is also the lowest of Masiello’s tenure and the only year since 2011 (19.9%) where that stat has been below the 20% mark.
“We’ve got to do the things we’re capable of doing and that we’re known for doing,” Masiello said on a league conference call Monday ahead of the opening round contest against Rider. “If we do that, then hopefully we can get our kind of basketball game.”
The Jaspers split the season series with the Broncs, earning a 76-73 win in Riverdale January 13 before falling 93-82 February 22 in Lawrenceville. In both games, it was Waterman who played the starring role for Manhattan. The junior set a career high with 35 points in the first meeting, and followed that up with another 30-point performance when the teams clashed again.
With 11 teams in the league, the schedule requires one team finish the season earlier than the rest. This year, that team was Manhattan, which concluded its regular season with that loss to Iona February 24 while the rest of the league wrapped up play two days later. The benefits of that extra time of preparation remain an unknown, especially since the Jaspers were among the last to learn their first round opponent thanks to that coin flip tiebreaker.
Masiello has already guided the Jaspers to three league championship games and his .750 winning percentage in the conference tournament ranks fourth in league history, but an improbable four-game run this March would likely be his greatest accomplishment yet. Despite the odds, the Jaspers’ lead man remains a well of optimism.
“It’s a tournament: you go up, you play, the guys like it better,” Masiello said. “Is it harder to do probably playing four games? Yeah, it is. Can it not be done? No, it can be done. We’ve seen teams do it before, where UConn went to the Big East tournament and got on a run, Syracuse got on a run. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it’s just a little harder.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.