A look inside Manhattan’s defense and Rhamel Brown’s void

Rhamel Brown. Courtesy Photo / GoJaspers.com

In the final minutes of the 2014 MAAC championship, David Laury drove to the hoop hoping to pull Iona within one possession of Manhattan. Rhamel Brown denied him, softly swatting his attempt to Rashawn Stores.

Laury was just Brown’s latest and last MAAC victim. He was not the first. Not by a long shot.

Brown was the MAAC’s Anthony Davis of interior defense, only he was four inches shorter and lacked the power of the unibrow. Opponents could get to the hoop against Manhattan, but Brown frequently sent them away empty handed. His 15.7 percent block rate (kenpom, subscription required) ranked second in Division I last year, and his presence under the hoop altered an even greater percentage of shots.

Oh, does Manhattan miss him.

The Jaspers’ defense is more inefficient than it has been under Steve Masiello, and Brown’s void cannot be understated. Manhattan’s adjusted efficiency of 103.4 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks 213th in the country. In last season’s run to the MAAC title and NCAA tournament, the Jaspers allowed 96.5 points per 100, good for the 35th-best mark. They were even stingier in 2012-13, when they ranked 27th with 92.3 points allowed per 100. Even in Masiello’s first year, Manhattan’s opponents got 98.4 points per 100.

So — cue your inner Jerry Seinfeld voice — what’s the deal with Manhattan’s defense?

The Jaspers are forcing turnovers at a higher rate (24.9 percent) than ever before, but their defense on 2-point shots has fallen to a pedestrian level. Opponents are converting 49.4 percent of shots inside the arc, leaving Manhattan at No. 232 nationally. The Jaspers held teams to 44 percent (No. 32) on such attempts last year.

Hoop-math.com digs deeper and tells us opponents are shooting 57 percent on shots at the rim this year, up from 48.3 percent last year, when Manhattan blocked nearly one of every five at-rim attempts. The Jaspers have swatted just 9.1 percent of shots at the rim this year.

Based on data from hoop-math and the MAAC, Manhattan’s opponents have converted 251 field goals at the rim this year. That total would have been 213 had the Jaspers sustained their 48.3 percent field goal defense at the hoop. That’s a difference of 76 points. It would have been 44 if the Jaspers allowed opponents to convert 52.1 percent of such attempts, as they did in 2012-13.

Ashton Pankey, Brown’s replacement as Manhattan’s starting center, has done his best work on the offensive end, but he’s also blocking shots at a respectable 5.1 percent clip, which ranks 210th nationally. The Jaspers are thin up front, though. He’s the only strong body under the hoop, and he lacks Brown’s natural shot-blocking ability.

Last year, Masiello frequently had Pankey and Brown on the floor at the same time. With Brown in foul trouble, Pankey could hold down the fort at the rim. This year, Masiello has no such luxury.

Manhattan’s decline on the glass has also undoubtedly boosted the uptick in opponents’ 2-point percentage. The Jaspers’ offensive rebounding percentage allowed has risen from 33.3 percent in 2013-14 to 35.3 percent.

George Beamon was actually more of a stalwart than Brown on the defensive glass, grabbing 17.3 percent of misses to Brown’s 14.5.

Masiello said in the preseason he was “most concerned about the blocked shots and the rebounding.” His reasoning is evident now more than ever.

The Jaspers still harass opposing offenses, and, as they showed against Saint Peter’s, can eliminate primary and secondary offensive options. On the other end, the offense has improved since its early bouts with inefficiency, the Quinnipiac game notwithstanding.

But without Brown protecting the rim — and Beamon, an all-league caliber defender — they just aren’t the defensive juggernaut they were last year.