Former Marquette coach Al Maguire had a famous saying about first-year college basketball players: “The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores.”
Maguire was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, so one gets the feeling he knew what he was talking about.
Which brings us to Manhattan College this season. Freshmen — and quite a few of them — dot the Jaspers’ roster. Youth seems to be to blame behind Manhattan’s 2-10 record through the non-conference season.
But with the start to Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play this past week, the Jaspers got a clean slate — a chance to put the non-conference season in the rearview mirror.
And Manhattan came through the initial weekend in pretty decent shape. After a hard-fought 63-59 loss to Quinnipiac last Thursday night in the conference opener, the Jaspers rebounded Saturday, rallying from a 14-point second-half deficit to post a 90-80 victory over Niagara. The win ended an eight-game losing streak for Manhattan and gave the young Jaspers a much-needed lift.
“You want to start out 2-0 in league play with two home games, but we came up a little short of that goal when we split,” Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello said. “But the win is important because, one, it gives your guys confidence, and two, it gives you the mentality of, ‘OK, this is a new season. This is different.’ And you want to build on that.”
Despite registering just two wins in non-conference play, Masiello was encouraged with his team’s play, if not the results.
“Coming into MAAC play, in all 12 (non-conference) games, I think we were right there except for George Washington and Hofstra,” Masiello said. “I thought we were playing good basketball. We lost a close one to Stony Brook (69-62), Northern Kentucky on the road (59-53) and Fordham (57-56). We’ve been playing very good basketball for the most part. We’ve been right there. So you kind of want to see your hard work get rewarded, especially with a young team — it’s really important.”
Which is what happened Saturday when the Jaspers rallied behind Stewart, one of those promising freshmen, who scored 22 points and helped Manhattan grab the come-from-behind win.
“When you come back from 14 down at home in the second half and get a win that’s going to boost your confidence a lot,” Masiello said. “But I think it says a lot about their character, that at 2-11, that they still have that mindset to grind and believe and want to win. So kudos to the kids for their mindset and their belief in what we’re doing.”
Masiello’s teams are always built around defense, and this year is no different. The Jaspers are ranked 43rd in the nation among the 351 Division I schools in scoring defense, yielding just 64.4 points a game. The problem is the offense is averaging just 54.5 points an outing, leaving them dead last in the nation. But Masiello thinks there is just too much potential offensive talent on his team to remain in the current position.
“I’ve watched Elijah Buchanan play for three years (in high school) and I know that kid can score the ball in his sleep,” Masiello said. “Tykei Greene can score the ball, Samir Stewart can score the ball and Tyler Reynolds was one of the top three-point shooters in junior college. I’m not saying their numbers are going to translate exactly, but somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and I know we’ll get to that reality.”
Manhattan was scheduled to take on Marist Tuesday, the start of a four-game road trip. But while Masiello expects more improvement from his young team as the season progresses, he knows in the MAAC, all that matters is the conference tournament in Albany in March when he thinks he’ll have a much more battle-tested team.
“In my mind the last five championships have gone through Iona and Manhattan,” Masiello said. “For me, it’s all about that weekend in March. That’s all I worry about.”