By Jon Rothstein
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Steve Masiello is the ultimate Rick Pitino disciple.
Ask him the best place to eat in the the five boroughs and he’ll rattle off a list of options within a matter of seconds.
Inquire about where he gets his suits and he’ll send you an immediate text filled with the contact information of the best tailor he knows within driving distance.
Masiello, who was an assistant under Pitino for six years at Louisville, once told me he planned to incorporate 99.9% of what he learned from his mentor into his own program.
Thanks to relentless full court pressure and a devastating match up zone, Manhattan won 21 games last season in Masiello’s first year as a head coach and eerily resembled a Triple A version of Louisville. The Jaspers also sent shock waves throughout college basketball with a dramatic victory at Iona on January 12th.
“Last season gave this team the belief that great things can happen,” Masiello said recently. “Sometimes, that’s half the battle.”
There won’t just be a belief that great things can happen next season at Manhattan — there will be an expectation.
With Iona and Fairfield retooling their rosters and Loyola slightly tinkering with their personnel, the Jaspers looks like pound for pound the team to beat in the MAAC for the 2012-13 season.
“There’s more depth here now than when I was here as an assistant,” said Masiello, who was an assistant with the Jaspers in 2004 under Bobby Gonzalez when Manhattan beat Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “When we beat Florida in 2004, it was mostly Luis Flores and Dave Holmes surrounded by a cast of others. The team we have now doesn’t have that star power but we have more weapons.”
The headliner is senior guard George Beamon, who Masiello said deserves to be the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year.
“He’s the most efficient player in the conference,” Masiello said of Beamon, who averaged 19 points per game as a junior. “He’s our MVP.”
Junior point guard Mike Alvarado is “all business now” according to Masiello and seems to have finally matured into a reliable floor general.
Sophomore forward Emmy Andujar is maybe the Jaspers most intriguing player at 6-foot-5 and has all the ingredients to have a memorable career in Riverdale. As a freshman Andujar averaged 8.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game and stood out as a point forward type that could distribute baskets at will to his teammates.
“He’s better with better talent around him,” Masiello said of Andujar, whose spent the off season watching video edits of current Houston Rockets first round pick Royce White to better understand his role. “He’s our most important guy. He’s a coach on the floor.”
Freshman point guard C.J. Jones is a player to immediately put in bold print because of his perimeter defense. Masiello called Jones “the best on ball defender he’s ever seen” and when you watch him in person it’s easy to see why. The native of Chicago is guaranteed to get major minutes in first season because of his ability to lock down the opponent’s best perimeter scorer.
The front court of this team could be potentially staggering if Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey gets a waiver to play immediately. The 6-foot-9 big man averaged 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds last season in the ACC and could form a devastating tandem with junior Rhamel Brown, whose body has drastically changed since the end of last season. Brown cut out carbohydrates and increased his conditioning, giving him a svelte look with added muscle everywhere.
“He’s one of the more underrated big men in the country,” Masiello said of Brown, who averaged 7.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks last season in just 19.1 minutes per game.
With Alvarado, Beamon, Andujar, Brown, and potentially Pankey, Manhattan has a lineup that is built to play for a MAAC title. If Pankey isn’t cleared, there is still more than enough capable bodies to make a run at the top of the conference standings.
In addition to Jones, veterans Ryan McCoy, Mohammed Koita, and potentially Roberto Colonette if he receives a waiver by the NCAA for grad school, should all form a potent second unit. Freshman wing Shane Richards could also be a factor off the bench with his offensive prowess.
The Jaspers don’t have the offensive talent that a team like Iona did last year, but right now they look like the unit that possesses the least amount of questions in the MAAC.
Fairfield lost Rakim Sanders and needs to identify a legitimate baseline scorer to go with the perimeter of Derek Needham, Desmond Wade, and Colin Nickerson.
Tim Cluess returns a lethal back court of Momo Jones and Sean Armand at Iona and also adds two big time talents in Toledo transfer Curtis Dennis and JUCO big man David Laury — but will the Gaels’ be able to mesh?
Loyola is the reigning league champion and has one of the better players in the conference in Erik Ethlerly, but the Greyhounds suffered a big loss when Justin Drummond decided to transfer unexpectedly after the season.
There’s a plethora of questions entering the season — but the least of them are in Riverdale.
“It’s going to be really competitive,” Masiello said of the MAAC. “Siena, Marist, and Niagara will all be improved. There’s six or seven teams that could win this league.”
And right now, the one with the best chance looks like they play their home games in Draddy Gymnasium.
Which team is your pick to take the MAAC title? Be heard in the comments below…