The last time the Manhattan College Jaspers were in the NCAA Tournament, ten seasons ago, they entered as a 12 seed and upset Florida in the first round. Carried by eventual NBA draft pick Luis Flores, the Jaspers had a season where they frequently got to the line and slowed the game, allowing their stars to play high minutes. This season, with a different coach and a different strategy, Manhattan College is a Cinderella in the making once again.
Manhattan’s Steve Masiello, even though he is only in his third year as a head coach, has an inspiring coaching pedigree. Masiello attended the University of Kentucky where his college career began under one National Championship winning coach in Rick Pitino, and finished under another in Tubby Smith. As a sparingly used college player, Masiello had no delusions of playing professionally at any level. Immediately after graduating Masiello became an assistant at Tulane, then an assistant at Manhattan, before finally returning to work under his first college coach Rick Pitino in Louisville.
His time under Pitino really shows in the way Masiello’s teams play. They use the press often, they play aggressive zone defenses, and they run the ball on offense. Rick Pitino has said before that his favorite statistic is one that his assistants track personally: deflections. That includes steals, blocks, and basically any other time defender gets their hand on a ball, even those that don’t normally get credited like a pass poked away out of bounds. Looking at how Manhattan and Louisville compare statistically, there are quite a few similarities. Both Manhattan and Louisville rank highly in steals thanks to the press (No. 12 and No. 2 in the nation, respectively), both teams accumulate a lot of blocks (No. 9 and No. 52), and both teams force a lot of turnovers (No. 11 and No. 4).
There are obviously two glaring differences between the two teams, in the talent level of the players and the experience of the coaches. Louisville, by virtue of being in a large conference, has an easier time acquiring top level talent. Pitino is a champion at the collegiate level who has also had stints in the NBA as a head coach. But by mimicking some of the unique strategies that makes Louisville a tough matchup, Manhattan can give any opponent fits.
The press is really the key. If a team comes in the the tournament unprepared for the Jaspers’ aggressive play, or if they don’t have the ballhandling ability to beat the zone press, they will fork over a lot of extra possessions. In the halfcourt, the Jaspers are rather mediocre both offensively and defensively. However, should they be able to extract additional chances out of their opponent by forcing turnovers and converting them into easy baskets they will have a significant chance to take down even a top-tier talent–like Louisville, which is a very real possibility as a first round matchup.
Coach Masiello has done a great job with his team this season, and has executed a great turnaround from where they were a few seasons ago. He may not be Rick Pitino, but he’ll have his team playing just as smart and hard as anyone else with the hope of making his Manhattan Jaspers into this year’s Cinderella.
Commentary by Brian Moore