Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
When it comes to sports, for as much as we like the spontaneity of the events, many are also fans of the storyline. And when it comes to the NCAA tournament, one of the usual storylines is that of the smaller school that takes advantage of its opportunity on the big stage. Whether its an upset victory or a valiant fight to the bitter end, that program becomes (for the time being) a fan favorite and the head coach, if young enough, is labeled the next “rising star” in the business.
In making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004, the Manhattan Jaspers looked to fit the bill, playing an uptempo, attractive brand of basketball led by a passionate coach in Steve Masiello, who both played for and coached under Rick Pitino. Led by seniors Rhamel Brown, George Beamon and Michael Alvarado the Jaspers gave Louisville a run for its money before falling short, and shortly thereafter Masiello came to an agreement to take over as the head coach at South Florida.
The familiar storyline seemed to fit Manhattan … until it didn’t.
A background check revealed that Masiello hadn’t completed his bachelor’s at Kentucky, resulting in USF pulling its offer off the table and many wondering how Manhattan would handle the situation. The school gave Masiello the opportunity to take care of the situation, reinstating him once that was accomplished. But what about the players? To say that the situation was a roller coaster for them would be an understatement, as they went from having a coach to seeing him prepare to move on, only to have him return amidst controversy.
They simply made the best of the situation, applying some of the lessons learned during a three-year process in which Manhattan went from winning six games in the season prior to Masiello’s arrival to reaching the NCAA tournament in March.
“In every situation I think you have to find the positive and learn from things, good, bad or indifferent,” Masiello told NBCSports.com earlier this month. “The one thing that really hits home is that I deal with 18, 19, 20 and 21-year old men every day, and something I did at that age could have cost me my career. I’m thankful that it didn’t. So I’m constantly preaching to my players that the decisions they make today can affect them at 35, 40, 45 (years of age). It’s a great lesson of accountability in that everything we do there are consequences.
“We’ve really put a microscope on it from a preaching standpoint,” Masiello continued. “What we want our culture to be, how we hold ourselves accountable, how we view ourselves and putting ourselves in the best position to be successful at all times. I think it was a great lesson to learn from my mistake, and make yourself better because of it.”
What also helped the players was the fact that they had veteran leaders capable of shepherding them through that period, and that includes the three seniors (Alvarado, Beamon and Brown) who exhausted their college eligibility in March. At a point in time when most seniors would be focused solely on what their next step would be, whether it’s moving into the work force or playing professionally, those three helped the remaining Jaspers stay on task with the goal being to make sure that the work put forth to rebuild the program didn’t go to waste.
“I give a lot of credit to the seniors, who helped me a lot both on and off the court,” senior forward Emmy Andujar told NBCSports.com. “Especially with the leadership role that I’ll have to take on this year.”
And while the losses of Alvarado, Beamon and Brown are big, Manhattan returns multiple contributors from last year’s rotation. From a leadership standpoint one player in particular, senior guard RaShawn Stores, is expected to be the “influencer.” Stores is the classic case of a player who’s overlooked by the uninitiated, with the focus on statistics resulting in some not understanding his impact on the team. As a junior Stores accounted for 4.9 points and 1.9 assists per game, but it’s the intangibles he brought to the locker room that were so valuable to the Manhattan program. And that isn’t expected to change at all, with his head coach noting that the team will go as far as Stores can lead them.
“As much credit as I want to give those three seniors, and they deserve it all, we had a lot of guys who were big pieces of the puzzle. We bring a lot back,” Masiello noted. “As for RaShawn, I’ve said for the last two years that we go as he goes. When he’s in a good place and feels good about himself, this team is a different team. RaShawn Stores has a greater impact on this team than I do, and I’ve said that for years because he’s such a great leader and guys follow him.
“I can be in a great place, but if RaShawn’s not I know the team’s going to struggle. It’s my job to make sure RaShawn Stores is in a good place because of the impact he has on this program.”
Players such as Andujar, Shane Richards and Ashton Pankey will be asked to take on greater responsibility on both ends of the floor in light of Manhattan’s personnel losses as well. Richards was one of the best freshmen in the MAAC in 2012-13, and he followed up that debut season with a solid sophomore campaign. Richards led the Jaspers in made three-pointers (77), scoring 8.3 points per game while shooting 41.4 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc. The goal for Richards heading into his junior season is easy to see when looking at his numbers from a season ago, but it’s a goal that can be tough to reach for a player who was most productive as a jump shooter.
Richards will need to expand his offensive game in order to help Manhattan account for the perimeter scoring provided by Alvarado and Beamon, and that’s something he’s worked to do this offseason. Of Richards’ 203 field goal attempts in 2013-14 183 were three-pointers, and he made just 35 percent of his attempts inside of the arc (7-for-20). Similar splits aren’t expected from Richards this season, and his progression will be something to keep an eye on as Manhattan works to navigate a difficult non-conference schedule.
“You’ll probably see the biggest jump in Shane Richards,” Masiello said. “He’s by far the most improved player (on our team); I love Shane, but I don’t recognize him now. His mind is in a great place, he’s really confident and he’s put in a lot of work on his game. He’s doing a lot more things that he hasn’t done before on the basketball court; he’s become more than just a spot-up shooter.”
As for Andujar, his versatility is one trait that should serve the Jaspers well in 2014-15. The senior has been a steady player throughout his time at Manhattan, averaging 8.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per contest last season. Shooting just over 53 percent from the field, Andujar also ranked second on the team in assists, and his passing ability from the forward spot can help Manhattan attack opposing defenses from multiple areas of the floor. But after starting just five games a season ago, Andujar’s had to prepare for a greater role in advance of his final campaign.
“Being more vocal on the court and getting quicker,” Andujar noted when asked what he worked to improve upon this offseason, and he also made note of his need to be a little more aggressive offensively. That plays into his coach’s desire to see a more consistent Andujar in 2014-15, as noticeable stretches of single-digit scoring nights were occasionally broken up by a double-figure night (he scored 28 in a home win over rival Iona in February).
Andujar’s one of three players expected to lead the way in the front court for Manhattan, with Pankey and Cincinnati transfer Jermaine Lawrence being the others. Pankey was solid in his first season after transferring in from Maryland, averaging 7.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Yet while he’ll be asked to step forward from a productivity standpoint, and the same can be said for Lawrence, they can’t get into the mindset of having to play the way Rhamel Brown did. Brown averaged 10.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game as a senior, winning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in each of his last three seasons. He brought a different set of skills to the table than either Pankey or Lawrence.
And in the eyes of Masiello, while new players will look to earn the minutes left open by Brown’s departure there’s no replacing a player of his caliber.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to account for Rhamel Brown,” Masiello stated. “He was one of the best big men in college basketball bar none, and I don’t think anyone realized how good he was. He was extremely underrated. That being said, what Ashton and Jermaine bring I don’t know if Rhamel could’ve brought so we’ll be different in that sense. Doesn’t mean we’ll be better or worse, I think you’ll see a different team.
“Jermaine and AP can affect the game in a lot of ways, and that’s what I really like about this team. This team will be different than teams I’ve had here in the past, but I think this team has a ceiling higher than any team I’ve had here.”
The scenario in front of Pankey and Lawrence is, in a sense, similar to what the entire program faces as it approaches the start of the 2014-15 season. Ten players played an average of at least 11.9 minutes per game last season, and given Manhattan’s style of play that should once again be the case with senior Donovan Kates and sophomores Rich Williams and Tyler Wilson back with four freshmen joining the program. Yet even with this being the case, this is a group different than any that Masiello has coached during his time at Manhattan.
Many of the available players having the combination of size and athleticism that can help the Jaspers in games against major conference opposition. Both Pankey and Lawrence are 6-foot-10, and in total Manhattan has six players who are at least 6-foot-8; last year’s team had just two (Pankey and 6-foot-10 Carlton Allen) with the 6-foot-7 Brown serving as the stalwart in the middle. Yet while some of the tangible characteristics have changed, Manhattan’s path to sustained success will continue to include the intangibles that resulted in the program’s turnaround.
While Masiello and his staff certainly deserve credit for the fact that Manhattan is in a position where the goal of extended success is undoubtedly attainable, the seniors who left this past spring shouldn’t be forgotten either. Not only did Alvarado, Beamon and Brown go through the full process of helping to rebuild the Manhattan program, winning just six games as freshmen, they also stepped forward at a point in time when uncertainty surrounded the program. And their efforts haven’t been forgotten in Riverdale, where the latest group of veterans hopes to build on what that trio was able to accomplish.