RIVERDALE, N.Y. -- When the Super Bowl came to New York in January, Manhattan Coach Steve Masiello got a chance to spend the week with his friend Brian Urlacher, the former linebacker for the Chicago Bears. They ate dinner, sampled some Manhattan nightlife and watched the game at a friend's apartment.
All week, it struck Masiello how much confidence Urlacher had in the Seattle Seahawks winning the Super Bowl. What impressed Urlacher the most about the Seahawks was their absolute faith in their identity. "They do what they do," Urlacher kept saying.
On the Friday night of Super Bowl weekend, the Jaspers lost to archrival Iona. After Masiello watched the Seahawks smother the Broncos on Super Bowl Sunday, he decided that Manhattan needed to re-discover its identity.
"The Seahawks were playing the best offense in the history of football, and they didn't change," Masiello said. "They said, We're going to be us. We're going to be really good at being us."
The Jaspers, at Masiello's urging, adopted the same philosophy. They closed the season by winning 11 of 12, a run in which Masiello stopped tinkering with his offense and focused on playing aggressive defense -- and winning ugly.
After beating Iona for the MAAC title, Manhattan has emerged as the type of scrappy, athletic and fearless team that no one wants to play in March. The Jaspers, with eight players from New York City and an 11-deep roster, play a distinct 2-2-1 full-court press. It's a perfect marriage of style and personnel.
The only problem is that the NCAA selection committee pitted them against a team that does what they do, only better. Thirteenth-seeded Manhattan will play fourth-seeded Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. The game matches Masiello with his philosophical forefather, Rick Pitino, whose influence shines through in every facet of Masiello's style, from his team's 2-2-1 full-court press to his flashy suits to his relentlessly sarcastic barbs.
"I'm really upset at the selection committee for pairing us up," Pitino said. "Not fair for either one of us with this much at stake."
Not only did Masiello coach under Pitino for six years at Louisville and play for him for a season as a walk-on at Kentucky, but when he was 12 years old, Masiello also served as a Knicks ball boy for Pitino when he was the coach in New York back in 1998. Pitino has influenced nearly every dribble, sideline adjustment and recruiting decision in Masiello's star-kissed basketball career.
The ties with the Cardinals coach don't end with Masiello. Manhattan's three full-time assistant coaches -- Matt Grady, Rasheen Davis and Mathiew Wilson -- all also worked at Louisville in various capacities under Pitino.
"You can't make it up," Masiello said on Monday morning with a laugh. "That's for sure."
The Cardinals are essentially the Jaspers on steroids, running a bigger, stronger and more disruptive version of the oppressive pressure system that's defined Pitino since his days at Providence College.
According to KenPom.com, Masiello's Manhattan team ranks in the Top 25 nationally in steal percentage, block percentage and forced turnover percentage. Pitino's Louisville team ranks in the Top 10 in total defense, forced turnover percentage and effective field goal percentage defense. You get the picture.
"It's two New York Italians that hate to lose," said Dan McHale, an assistant coach at Minnesota who has worked with both coaches. "It's the master versus one of his pupils. Not only will Steve have his team prepared, but he will make sure his wardrobe is on par with Coach P's. Might be a tall task."
Pitino and Masiello texted each other a few times after the bracket came out. Both men acknowledge that the players will win the game. The Jaspers' roster is the archetype of a March darling.
It starts with star guard George Beamon, a Long Island native who averages 19.3 points per game and is the heartbeat of the team, as well as its defensive stopper. Masiello calls Beamon "Sherman," after Richard Sherman, the Seahawks' shutdown cornerback, thanks to his suffocating work on the left side of Manhattan's press. Teams go away from Beamon's side 80 percent of the time.
"We're definitely not scared [of anybody]," Beamon said. "I never have my guys playing scared. I wasn't taught to be scared of anything. I wasn't built like that."
The rest of the cast is filled with the type of gritty kids that can serve a tournament underdog well.
Sniper Shane Richards wears uniform number 0, a reminder of the number of scholarship offers he had before he got one from the Jaspers. Emmy Andujar is a 6-foot-6 do-it-all wing who has played through the pain of dealing with the murder of his brother, Jose, who was shot in the head two years ago. If size matters, it's not an issue for Manhattan. At 6-7, center Rhamel Brown leads the nation in kenpom.com's block percentage, and 6-10 forward Ashton Pankey, who started 17 games for Maryland as a redshirt freshman in 2011-12, has accepted his role as the Jaspers' sixth man. All have sacrificed personal statistics to tailor their games to Manhattan's style.
"I wouldn't want to play Manhattan if I was a top-seeded team," Hofstra Coach Joe Mihalich said. "The game honors toughness. They have that."
Seventeen games into the season Manhattan made a key defensive adjustment that revived the effectiveness of its press. Masiello had assigned Wilson, the assistant coach who oversees the press, to figure out how the Jaspers could force more turnovers. Wilson broke down the location of each giveaway by Manhattan's opponents and realized that 47 percent of them were coming in what he calls the "Red Zone," which extends eight feet to either side of the mid-court line.
From that fact, Wilson deduced that teams had a tendency to exhale after breaking the Jaspers' initial flurry of pressure. Masiello essentially began focusing on reapplying his press in the Red Zone. "No one practices against pressure there," he said.
It's a defense that makes Urlacher proud, although the former All-Pro linebacker doesn't talk too much hoops with Masiello.
"He learned so much from Rick Pitino," Urlacher said. "What the hell am I going to say? [Pitino's] one of best coaches of all time."
And on Thursday in Orlando, Masiello will once again get a chance to see that up close. With Manhattan's identity secure in its defensive mindset, the Jaspers will now face the ultimate test -- the team on which they're modeled.