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Jaspers rely on defense for MAAC tourney success

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While there is no official way to determine where the Manhattan College men’s basketball team stands in terms of being among the youngest programs in the NCAA, it’s not a stretch to suggest the Jaspers are near the top when it comes to youthful rosters.

A quick perusal of said roster tells the tale of seven freshmen and three sophomores — five of them first-year players — while all three sophomores average better than 13 minutes of playing time each night.

So one might understand why it has been something of an up-and-down season for Manhattan.

There was an 0-6 December followed by a 3-6 January, both of which gave way to a 4-3 February before the 1-1 March. It’s what happens when a roster is overhauled like Manhattan’s was this season.

But defense, as is always the case for any Manhattan team under head coach Steve Masiello, once again is the backbone of the program. The Jaspers stellar defensive unit yields just 63.1 points a game, leading not only the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but is 16th best in the nation out of 351 Division I schools. It is stingier than many of the country’s blueblood programs like Clemson, Ohio State, Kentucky, Maryland, Syracuse and Gonzaga.

Pretty nice company.

The problem, as it has been all season, is the offense. The Jaspers muster just 56.9 points a game, putting them dead last in the MAAC and better than just one other Division I team in the nation.

Growing pains, for sure, for this young Manhattan team.

But with the regular season now over, and the Jaspers finishing with an 8-10 conference mark, it could be time for a fresh start for Manhattan as the team heads to Albany for the MAAC tournament, the winner of which heading to the NCAA Tournament later this month. The Jaspers enter this tournament, at least, as the No. 7 seed.

It has been a tournament dominated the past three seasons by Iona College, which will once again enter as the top seed. But is this season going to be different? Is the road to the MAAC title a little more wide open than in past seasons? Not quite, says Masiello.

“No I don’t think so,” Masiello said after last Friday’s 62-54 loss to Monmouth. “It cracks me up when people say it’s wide open. There’s a reason there’s a one (seed). That’s the team that won more games than everyone else. Do I think there is a team that is dominant? No. I think this tournament is more about matchups this year than any other tournament.”

Masiello hopes Manhattan is better than 10th-seeded Fairfield as the Stags will be the Jaspers’ first-round opponent on March 7 at 7 p.m., at the Times Union Center. Manhattan and Fairfield split their two games in the regular season, with the Jaspers taking a 62-49 decision at home before dropping a 72-59 contest on the road.

The winner would get second-seeded Canisius Friday night at 9:30 p.m., in a quarterfinal-round matchup. The Jaspers defeated the Golden Griffins in their only regular-season matchup this year.

Manhattan has more than held its own this season against some of the higher-seeded teams in the tournament. Aside from the win over No. 2 Canisius, the Jaspers went 1-1 against both No. 3 Quinnipiac and No. 4 Rider. So do the Jaspers have a puncher’s chance in a prospective battle with conference heavyweights in the tournament?

“Can we can beat anyone? Yes,” Masiello said. “Every time I step on the sideline I expect to win. I’m a sore loser. I never want to lose. I hate losing. I don’t ever expect to lose. So every time I’m in competition, I expect to win, and so do my kids.”

This is the final season the MAAC tourney will be held on Siena’s home court in Albany. It’s a spot many conference coaches believe gives Siena a distinct home court advantage. But Masiello led Manhattan to MAAC titles in 2014 and 2015 in tournaments held in both Springfield, Massachusetts and Albany. So he could care less where his teams play.

“I think once you get up there, it’s all about momentum,” Masiello said. “Albany is the greatest city in the world. Springfield, Massachusetts, to me, is the most beautiful place in the world. I’ll go to Springfield anytime. I love Springfield. I love Albany. I’ve won two championships and those places are awesome.

“When you win, you love those places. And when you lose, everything is wrong.”

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