Rich Williams returns from injury this season to give Manhattan four seniors looking to atone for recent downturn as Jaspers seek third MAAC championship in five seasons. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
Manhattan's season came to a heartbreaking end last March, befallen by a last-second three-pointer against Rider and betrayed by a game clock that had reached all zeroes less than a second before Zavier Turner appeared to have gotten what would have been a game-winning layup to fall, leaving an enduring reminder of what could have been during a 10-22 campaign whose curtain was dropped in the opening round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
Five months later, the Jaspers have reemerged, bearing the scars of last season's disappointment as they enter a season in which their four returning starters and cadre of experience places them among the projected top tier of the MAAC in what those inside the program are hoping will be a year of resurgence and redemption.
"I think anytime you go through a year like last year, where you have injuries and you have a tough year, you have to find a positive in it," head coach Steve Masiello said when summarizing the climax of a season that did not go as planned for Manhattan, one in which Rich Williams; the Jaspers' second-leading scorer in 2015-16, was lost before it even began, having suffered a torn meniscus. "You have to embrace some of the things you went through, some of the embarrassment you went through, the long bus rides you went through, and really ask yourself if you want this to happen again or if you want to be back in this situation again. What can you do to change that?"
"You discuss those things as a family, as a team, and you put that into action in your offseason," he continued. "I think so far, the guys have done a good job in that area."
In some ways, last season's final act seems reminiscent of the end of the 2012-13 season, one in which the Jaspers finished 14-18, but fell three points short of a MAAC championship, losing to Iona in the conference title game. In a coincidental, yet similar, vein, Manhattan navigated both of those seasons without the services of a star player; as Williams was out for the entire season last year, while George Beamon missed all but four games five years ago with a high ankle sprain that was aggravated when he tried to return in December. Fueled by the near-miss, the Jaspers went through practices the following summer and fall eager to claim what they felt was theirs, even displaying the 60-57 final score of the Iona loss on the Draddy Gymnasium scoreboard in every drill and intrasquad scrimmage. The tactic paid off handsomely the following March, as Manhattan knocked off the Gaels for their first of two straight MAAC titles, the fourth and fifth overall in school history. And although last year's frustration was not at the level of coming so close to a championship and subsequent NCAA Tournament berth as the Jaspers did in 2013, Masiello still sees the shared parallel in the two tales.
"I think there's some similarities there, without a doubt," he admitted. "I don't think this team had as much as a heartbreak. That team was three points away from getting to the dance, this team wasn't that close. I always feel the further you go, the more invested you become, the bigger the heartbreak is as well. I think this team definitely has some heartbreak with that. I wouldn't say it was to the level of that year, but I think the similarities are the same in the sense of we had a tough year, guys felt it, we had a very good player sitting out that we needed, and we have a lot of players returning. In those areas, I think there were a lot of similarities, so I'm curious to see how these guys respond to it, but I think we're set up to better ourselves."
This season, Williams returns as a fifth-year senior with the experience of playing a role in both of Manhattan's NCAA Tournament runs under Masiello. The Brooklyn native joins fellow seniors Zavier Turner, Zane Waterman and Calvin Crawford in what shapes up as one of the more experienced rosters not only in Riverdale, but in the MAAC as well, setting up what could be a fitting high note for the quartet to go out upon should the Jaspers hear their name in the field of 68 for the third time in five seasons.
"I think we're looking at a senior class that could, potentially, have four 1,000-point scorers," Masiello said, citing the accomplishments and upside of his veteran leaders. "There's a lot of experience, I think there's a lot of guys that have some great moments, some bad moments. More than anything else, they've seen just about anything you can see, and I don't mean that by arenas. I mean that by they've tried it their way, they've tried it my way, they've tried other coaches' ways. They've tried everything, and I think they understand what works and what doesn't. I think at this point in their careers, all these guys care about is winning, and I don't think you can say that when guys are younger."
"Certain guys care about getting their points, certain guys care about making their parents happy," he elaborated. "These four seniors, I can say, are committed to winning right now for the program. That's what's important about a senior class, because if your senior class isn't committed to that, it can be a problem. But when you have seniors committed to the cause, and we keep talking about this, keep the main thing the main thing; and that's our third (championship) in five (years), that's a great thing to have."