Manhattan back in NCAA tourney, once again looking dangerous
Chances are Steve Masiello didn't think it could get any worse than Dec. 5. His Manhattan Jaspers, a team picked to finish in the top three of the MAAC, was sinking like a stone. A 1-5 record, capped off with an opening loss to a Fairfield team that was picked to finish ninth in the league.
Rock bottom at 2-7.
So, just how exactly did Manhattan go from that to celebrating on the court of the Times-Union Center in Albany after winning the MAAC tournament Monday night? The Jaspers simply caught fire at the right time. Beating rival Iona, 79-69, was just the latest example of a team that has figured it out after searching for answers in the first month of the season.
Now it has a chance to do what every mid-major league hopes to do: Pull off an upset next week.
Wherever this Manhattan team gets shipped to, whomever it plays, know this before you make a snap judgment to slip the other team ahead in that first game—think about it for an extra couple of seconds. You might realize that this is a team that is more than capable of pulling off that first-game stunner.
The MAAC champion is likely going to end up along the 12- or 13-seed line when the bracket is unveiled on Sunday, with an outside chance it slides to the No. 14s. At 19-13 overall, the Jaspers don't have the overall profile to rise much higher than that, but also not fall below the 14-line, either. And that is going to present a problem for whatever limping high-major team gets matched up on the other side.
Since that 2-7 start, Manhattan is 17-6 and closed the season winning seven of its final eight games to make the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, by winning the league's automatic bid.
That's precisely what you'd like to see from an upset special in your NCAA pool.
Still not convinced that Manhattan has the goods, despite its record? Does experience do anything for you?
The bulk of this year's nucleus was a part of last year's NCAA team that took Louisville to the brink of an upset. If not for a couple of timely baskets from Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, the Cardinals might have among those high seeds being bounced on the first round of games.
Manhattan was a 13-seed.
Forward Emmy Andujar wasn't even a starter in last year's NCAA game, but played 30 minutes and scored 13 points. Forward Ashton Pankey was a member of the starting five and led the Jaspers with 16 points. Five other Manhattan players among its regulars this season, played minutes against Louisville.
They've been through the drill. They've done the media availabilities and the travel and the herky-jerky practice schedules.
Manhattan has been there, done that.
Now, it's back. The season didn't start as they had hoped, but the Jaspers have salvaged it in a big way. Winning the MAAC championship against Iona was only the latest proof that this is a team trending upward at the absolute perfect time of the season.
The only question is: Will its opponent have been paying attention?