Steve Masiello speaks of Ashton Pankey with mythical admiration.
“He’s kind of like a unicorn,” Masiello says.
Masiello is the head coach at Manhattan, a mid-major program hailing from the MAAC. So when he says, “You don’t get guys like that,” he means that schools at his level rarely sign chiseled 6-foot-10 forwards, who, at 225 pounds, can both run the floor and dominate the post.
“You look at this young man, and he looks like Hercules, made out of stone,” Masiello says. “He’s so strong.”
If Pankey is Hercules, Iona was his Nemean lion. The redshirt junior, who transferred from Maryland in 2012, slayed the Gaels with 21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the MAAC championship to lead Manhattan into the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. He was named Most Valuable Player of the conference tournament.
“We’re not where we are today without Ashton Pankey,” Masiello says.
And Pankey would not be here — starring for Manhattan — without his mother.
Ashton Pankey remembers feeling confused. Disappointed, too. Most of all, he was frustrated.
The date was Oct. 24, 2012, and Masiello called his newly acquired forward into his office. “AP,” Masiello said, “[the NCAA] denied your waiver. It looks like you’re going to have to sit this year.”
Why? How could they reach that decision? I’m here for a legitimate reason.
Those were the thoughts cluttering Pankey’s head that day. Persuasion Branch, his ailing mother, had been evicted from her South Bronx home. He had only left Maryland — where he started 17 of 32 games as a redshirt freshman in 2011-12 — to care for her. The NCAA, he thought, would grant his hardship waiver for that reason.
“I can’t do anything without my mom,” Pankey says. “If I would have lost her, I don’t know what I would be doing or where I would be in life.”
Pankey was concerned about his mother’s well-being. He says he immediately knew he would transfer closer to home when he heard about the eviction because his younger sister, Taylor Branch, was away at Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire.
His mother needed him, even for simple chores around her new Queens home.
“He was missing team-related stuff to go help his mom,” Masiello says. “We knew it was a real situation.”
The NCAA disagreed.
Masiello braced for a tantrum when he summoned Pankey that October day.
“Nine out of 10 kids pout, hang their heads, feel sorry for themselves,” Masiello says. “He went out in the Green & White [intrasquad] scrimmage that night and had  points in it. I saw the way he handled adversity for the first time, and I was really impressed by it.”
Pankey suppressed his questioning thoughts, the whys and hows behind the NCAA’s conclusion. He so desperately wanted to play immediately, but he could only train with his sights set on the 2013-14 season.
Pankey practiced with the Jaspers throughout the 2012-13 season, though NCAA rules prohibited him, a redshirting transfer, from traveling with the team. He learned from junior center Rhamel Brown and the coaching staff, and he spent as much time as he could with Branch.
Internally, however, he struggled.
“It was a crazy year, and it was really hard for me,” Pankey says.
Pankey is a staunch believer in everything happening for a reason, including the undesired NCAA ruling. He’s just as firm in his conviction that he could have made a tremendous impact on the Jaspers that redshirt year.
So watching from the bench as Iona beat Manhattan, 60-57, in the 2013 MAAC championship was debilitating. That experience made Pankey feel useless — he couldn’t do anything to swing the result in Manhattan’s favor — but it also disrupted his stoic disposition.
Masiello remembers sitting in the team hotel that night, on the verge of tears as he recounted how his Jaspers came so close to reaching their first NCAA Tournament since 2004.
“[Pankey] came up to me, and he had tears in his eyes — and this is a kid that didn’t show emotion at the time,” Masiello says. “He was very stoic, almost to the effect of where you didn’t know if things mattered to him. He said, ‘Coach, I promise you next year we’re going to win this thing, and you have my word on that.’”
Pankey talked the talk, but at first he struggled walking the walk. He was scared of stepping on the toes of George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown, the senior class that had resurrected the program from the ground level. He didn’t want to act like the alpha dog when he wasn’t.
“I just went in and didn’t really know my role with the team,” Pankey says.
The result: a slow start.
Pankey fouled out in each of his first two games, Manhattan wins over La Salle and Columbia. He scored in double-figures — never more than 11 points — in five of the Jaspers’ first 20 games. Then were games at Illinois State and against Monmouth when Pankey scored just two points. Even in his 9-point, 5-rebound, 4-block performance at South Carolina, Pankey shot 2-for-6 from the field and fouled out.
Throughout the struggles, Pankey continued to take the subway out to Queens to help his mother. He battled a leg injury, and adjusted to life coexisting with Brown on the block.
“I don’t think people realized how many things Ashton had to deal with last year,” Masiello said this past October.
Then Pankey exploded for 12 points and eight rebounds in a 64-49 win over Saint Peter’s on Feb. 4, as Manhattan snapped a two-game skid. In the next game, Pankey had 16 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. The Jaspers beat Canisius, 84-73, and lost just once in their nine games leading up to the conference championship.
“I think we really saw who Ashton Pankey was the last 10, 12 games of the year,” Masiello says.
Pankey scored just four points in Manhattan’s 71-68 win over Iona in the 2014 MAAC championship, but two of them came in the Jaspers’ critical 8-0 spurt with about six minutes left. He also grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots.
After David Laury’s last-second heave missed, Pankey found his coach.
“The first thing he did is he grabbed me and he goes, ‘I told you I got you,’” Masiello says.
Pankey’s message was the same not even three weeks later, when Manhattan placed Masiello on leave for falsely stating on his resume that he had graduated from the University of Kentucky. Manhattan agreed to reinstate Masiello on the condition he complete the necessary coursework to receive his degree, but he was crushed. He was embarrassed that he lost a five-year contract worth about $6 million with South Florida. He was ashamed that a misstep from 14 years earlier nearly cost him his livelihood and the game he loves.
Masiello ordinarily has an unbreakable will, but he was a vulnerable man in those early weeks of spring.
“[Pankey] said, ‘Don’t worry about this coach. A year from now, we’ll be right back where we belong,’” Masiello remembers. “That’s just the type of kid that AP is. The country doesn’t get to see it because he comes off so tough, his demeanor on the court.”
Which brings Pankey’s story to the last two-plus months, when his herculean physique began to consistently overwhelm opponents.
Dating back to Jan. 7 — when he had 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a 68-63 win over Saint Peter’s — Pankey averaged 15.9 points and 7.4 rebounds in 19 games, 14 of them Manhattan wins. That’s easily the best stretch of his career.
“He has been dominating,” Manhattan walk-on Trevor Glassman says.
It’s easy to forget now, but Pankey struggled again early in the season. He had seven points on 3-of-8 shooting in a Nov. 18 overtime loss at UMass. He scored five points and fouled out in 15 minutes in a 64-63 loss at George Mason on Nov. 29. In 2013-14, Pankey’s nine points and five rebounds against Northeastern probably would have provided Manhattan enough of a jolt for a win.
“The biggest thing for Ashton last year was he could have an off day and this program could still win because of Rhamel, Emmy [Andujar], George, Mike, etcetera, etcetera,” Masiello says. “This year I didn’t know if we could be successful if he had an off night.”
So Masiello started from the ground level when he and Pankey broke down film together.
“We simplified things,” Masiello says. “I would say, ‘Tell me what you saw here, tell me what you saw there. What do you like? What don’t you like? Where do you like the ball? Where do you want it on this? Here’s your read on this.’”
In Manhattan’s first 13 games, Pankey produced consecutive double-digit outputs just twice. By the Saint Peter’s game in early January, Pankey had grown comfortable. He understood his role — just how important he was to Manhattan’s success — and he was ready to make his mark.
So the Jaspers entered the ball to Pankey on their first possession. Pankey banged into Quadir Welton, forced him deep under the hoop and threw down a rim-rattling dunk.
“Everybody just went crazy and I established myself and established the tone for the game and not just for the game, for the rest of the season as well,” he says.
The Jaspers will face Hampton Tuesday night in the first game of the NCAA Tournament. It might be the play-in game, but it’s the tournament, nonetheless — right where Pankey promised Masiello the Jaspers would be.
“I still feel like I’m dreaming, man,” Pankey says three days after cutting down the Times Union Center nets.
Pankey says he is closer than ever with his mother, the woman who drew him to Manhattan in the first place. Without her falling ill and getting evicted, Pankey likely would have stayed at Maryland. Had he never medically redshirted his freshman year at Maryland and had the NCAA granted his hardship waiver in 2012-13, he would have exhausted his eligibility last year. Not that he would ever wish misfortune to seep back into his family’s life, but Pankey says everything happens for a reason.
“Look how things turned out: two championships in a row,” Pankey says. “It’s just all crazy. I’m just so happy, words can’t describe.”
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.
Few Americans can imagine what it’s like to walk a single mile in Samson Akilo’s sizeable shoes, let alone understand the backbreaking load of fear, anguish and expectations he shouldered on every step of his nearly 5,300-mile odyssey.
But when he sits towards the end of the bench on Tuesday night in the NCAA Tournament First Round, Manhattan basketball’s 6-foot-8-inch freshman forward needs to only turn his head to the left to find someone who knows exactly what it is like to walk, step-for-step, along the same, winding, and arduous journey from Lagos, Nigeria to Manhattan College, that Akilo has trudged along for the past five years.
“It means everything to me, to have someone with me who knows exactly what I’m going through,” says Akilo of his teammate, countryman, best friend and “brother” Samson Usilo. “We’re the same — we come from the same city, the same culture, the same struggles. Having someone to help me out and be by my side is amazing.”
“Almost no Americans can really understand what it’s like, to be so far away from your family, to worry about them, to not be there to help if they need you, but to know they need you to be that far away,” echoes Usilo. “Samson knows and that helps me keep going.”
The parallels in the paths trod by Usilo and Akilo are staggering. Both were born in the same city in Nigeria. Both were the fifth child in their families — Akilo the youngest in his family and Usilo the fifth of six. Both grew up in meager means, and both lost their fathers far too young.
And both found salvation in basketball; a path to not to just simply survive — no small task in Nigeria, where the average life expectancy remains just 52 — but break down the door that stands between so many that grew up in similar circumstances and a better life.
And now, both are looking back across the Atlantic, hoping to use the game to help lift their families up with them to a better life.
“I am here because of them,” says Usilo of his family. “Everything I am doing is to try to help them have a better life. That’s why I get up every day, to try to make their life better.”
“Whether I can bring [my family] over here, or whether I go back to Nigeria, no matter what, I am going to be doing whatever can to help my family the most,” echoes Akilo.
The long journey
Present day Nigeria was carved out of the cradle of West Africa by European colonialism, and came under the British Empire in the late 1800s. The history of the people — more than 500 distinct ethnicities — that make up present day Nigeria goes back virtually to the beginning of civilization, serving as the site of numerous civilizations that rose and fell over many millennia.
Through its history, Nigeria has been a country of stark contrasts: serving first as a hub of the trans-Atlantic African Slave trade, and then as the base of the British anti-Slave movement. After achieving peaceful independence from Great Britain in the 1960s, the country almost immediately turned around and plunged into several years of civil war, followed by decades of military dictatorships and juntas.
“I don’t think many American’s really know what it is like to not know if you are going to be able to find food that week to stay alive, and that’s something many people in Nigeria face,” says Akilo.
And nowhere has Nigeria’s contrasts been more stark than Usilo and Akilo’s home city, Lagos.
The most populous city (between 17.5 and 21 million residents) in Africa’s most populous country, Lagos has been simultaneously boom and bust for virtually its entire existence. A port city sitting on a lagoon just off the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos is Nigeria’s economic focal point, and is home to most of the country’s big business and financial institutions and industrial production. But in the shadows cast by the skyscrapers that stretch towards the burning African sun, commercial banks, oil refineries and bustling nightlife, sit slums, ghettos, a booming drug trade and organized crime underbelly, and unimaginable poverty.
“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we had each other, and that was enough,” says Usilo of his family.
“We were poor,” says Akilo, before quickly correcting, “we weren’t poor — we had a roof over our heads and we had food, but we didn’t have much more.”
It was a life filled with danger, danger that remains for the families that Akilo and Usilo left behind.
“You definitely worry a lot about them, especially not being there,” says Usilo.
The Islamist terrorist movement Boko Haram has made (at least a few) international headlines by butchering entire towns and abducting men, women and children across northern Nigeria — including the horrific massacre of upwards of 2,000 people in a January attack on several villages. And while the group has, thus far, remained in northeast Nigeria — the complete other side of the country from Lagos — the threat to Usilo and Akilo’s family hovers over their heads, and weighs heavy on their hearts, every day.
“You definitely worry about it, because you don’t know when or where they might come from, and they haven’t been caught or captured,” says Akilo.
“I try to not worry about it,” says Usilo, before admitting, “yes, it is very scary.”
But even without the threat of terrorists, life in Nigeria is fraught with disease and danger. Barely more than half of Nigeria’s roughly 174 million residents have potable drinking water or sanitary facilities. It remains the lone country in Africa to have yet to fully eradicate polio, and has a staggering infant mortality rate of more than 97 deaths per 1,000 births.
“Growing up with not a lot, it makes you appreciate life, family, friends, a lot more,” says Usilo.
Despite the difficult living conditions (or perhaps because of them), athletics have become inseparable from Nigerian society.
“Playing a sport, or being athletic, is part of life,” says Akilo.
“I think it gives people kind of something they can concentrate on and forget about the bad things,” says Usilo.
Soccer remains king in the former British colony — akin to a religion — and both Akilo and Usilo dabbled in it as youth, but both quickly gravitated to basketball, which has also propelled a fair share of their countrymen on to significant success, none more so than NBA Hall of Fame selection Hakeem Olajuwon.
And for both Usilo, who would blossom into a ferociously athletic 6’4” wing, and Akilo, a developing forward, basketball would provide an opportunity to a new life. But for both, it would mean leaving their families behind.
“It was a very hard decision,” says Akilo of deciding to accept an offer to play basketball at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn, “but my family wanted what was best for me.”
“My family pushed me to go do it,” says Usilo, who first attended a high school in North Carolina, before transferring to Nazareth.
Despite growing up in the same city and traveling in the same basketball circles, Usilo and Akilo had only met once in Nigeria, briefly at a basketball camp, and didn’t get to know each other until they became teammates at Nazareth. Usilo arrived first and Akilo came a year later.
“Samson had been there for a while before me, so he really looked out for me and helped me adjust to everything,” says Akilo.
“It was really great to have Samson there, because having him around helped me feel less lonely, to miss home a little less,” says Usilo.
Usilo was the unquestioned star — a high-major level athlete who would drill pull-up 3-pointers on the fast break and throw down reverse dunks in traffic — but Akilo began to carve out a niche of his own, throwing ‘bows and crashing the boards in the low post. Usilo received dozens of Division I scholarship offers, but when Manhattan extended an offer to Akilo, who had also been offered by Long Island, it sealed the deal for both.
“I really liked the school and the coaches a lot, but the fact that Samson would be there with me definitely helped,” says Usilo.
A rough landing at Manhattan
For both Usilo and Akilo, freshman year of college has been a challenge. While their time away from home has left both much more well-prepared for the independence that comes with college, life for their families in Nigeria been has rougher than at any previous point in their lives. Boko Haram’s attacks, coupled with record unemployment rates and a massive drop in the price of crude for an oil-dependent country, and impending elections already growing contentious, has left tensions high across the country.
“It’s definitely hard for them back home, and that makes it hard for me,” says Akilo.
On top of strife at home, the duo has experienced adversity for the first time on the court, their former safe haven and the eye of the storms that had swirled around much of their lives. Usilo suffered a season-ending torn quad before playing a single minute, and Akilo has stood on the outside looking in at the rotation.
“It has been a challenge,” says Usilo, “being hurt, not being able to play has been very, very hard — very frustrating.”
But both have found solace and support from one another.
“I can talk to Samson about anything, and we talk a lot and help each other a lot,” says Akilo.
“It would be a lot, a lot harder without him,” adds Usilo.
And in the aftermath of Manhattan’s 79-69 upset of top-seed Iona in the MAAC championship game, Akilo and Usilo found each other amidst the celebration to share an embrace as they punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Looking back across the Atlantic and ahead to the future
Despite their freshman year struggles, both Akilo and Usilo say they are more committed now than ever before to making the most out of their time and earning their degrees at Manhattan so that they can help their respective families.
“When you face something hard, you realize how much you really want something, and I don’t just want — I need to be successful here,” says Usilo.
“I want to give my family a much better life, and for that I need to do great things here,” adds Akilo.
And according to both, whatever their future holds and wherever it may be, it will include the other.
“Samson and I are definitely friends for life, no matter what,” says Usilo.
“We’re family,” Akilo says. “Family is forever.”
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.
ALBANY, N.Y. – There they stood, atop a podium beneath a net-less rim. Steve Masiello and RaShawn Stores, back against back.
Third-seeded Manhattan had just defeated No. 1 Iona, 79-69, in the MAAC championship at Times Union Center Monday night, and the coach and point guard who have had each others’ backs for four years basked as teammates chanted “back to back! Back to back!”
Masiello buried a smile in Emmy Andujar’s chest, while an elated Stores flashed a wide grin. Manhattan had punched its second straight bid to the NCAA tournament.
“[It was] one of the best feelings,” said Stores, a senior. “Journey started four years ago when he brought me in. I thank him every day.”
Masiello believed in Stores when no other coaches offered him a roster spot. He also heeded Stores’ advice Sunday night when discussing a gameplan for Iona.
“He literally came up with the scheme of how he wanted to play the game,” Masiello said. “He told me he wanted to fan out, not trap David [Laury], play single coverage, and let’s see how they play it.”
The Jaspers executed that plan and led for 33 minutes and 39 seconds. Playing Laury one-on-one enabled them to keep closer tabs on Iona’s lethal shooters who had set a MAAC tournament record with 19 made 3-pointers against Monmouth in Sunday’s semifinal. The Gaels were 5-for-22 from deep and 23-for-59 overall.
“If you take away a team’s top priority and make them to go C and D… it’s always going to be rough,” Stores said. “We just know ball pressure, ball pressure, keep trying to get to their legs. They’re a jump-shooting team. If you don’t have legs, you can’t really shoot the ball too well.”
“[Stores is] going to be a superstar in this coaching business,” Masiello said, “and I’m lucky to have him.”
Stores, Manhattan’s undisputed leader, stressed the importance of unity, reiterating the Jaspers’ 2014 slogan of “T.O.E.” or “Team Over Everything” and this year’s version, “22 Strong,” as he sat next to the championship trophy.
That unity helped Manhattan fight through a rare form of adversity that seeped into the program last spring. Five days after the No. 13 Jaspers gave No. 4 Louisville a scare in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 64, Masiello accepted the head coaching position at South Florida. The deal fell through when a background check revealed Masiello had not earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, as his resume stated.
After internal deliberation, Manhattan agreed to reinstate Masiello as head coach on the condition that he complete his degree.
The Jaspers welcomed him back with alacrity.
“It’s been, probably, the hardest year of my life,” Masiello said.
And now he and Manhattan are back on top, heading to the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. No MAAC team had advanced to consecutive NCAA tournaments since Siena from 2008-2010.
An emotional Masiello deflected the credit for the program’s return to glory towards his players.
“They handled themselves with class, and the cream rises,” he said. “For me to be where I’m sitting and to be associated with these young men, I’m the lucky one. I’m the luckiest coach in college basketball. It’s about these kids. That’s what we can’t lose sight of. It’s about these kids.”
ALBANY, N.Y. – Just 40 minutes of basketball separate Manhattan from its second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Yet as Steve Masiello spoke about his team’s third consecutive bid to the MAAC championship, one thing irked him.
“I’m not happy about the opponent,” he said.
That opponent is Iona, the same team the Jaspers defeated in last year’s title game and the same team they fell to in 2012-13. The Gaels beat Manhattan in both regular-season meetings by an average of 3.5 points.
In the early semifinal Sunday evening at Times Union Center, Iona knocked down a MAAC tournament record 19 three-pointers (on 35 attempts) and throttled Monmouth, 95-77.
“They’re, offensively, just a nightmare to deal with,” Masiello said.
Manhattan can be a different type of bad dream for opponents. The Jaspers held Saint Peter’s to 0.77 points per possession and forced 19 turnovers in their 65-48 semifinal win.
“I thought we had the ability to make it ugly and win, which is what you have to be able to do in any type of tournament setting because there are going to be nights you don’t shoot the ball great,” Masiello said.
This Manhattan team has a different look than the squad that cut down the nets last year. George Beamon, Mike Alvarado and Rhamel Brown — the top three scorers last season — graduated in the spring.
“I think that’s the thing I’m really proud of,” Masiello said. “Obviously we have great turnover. We all know what Mike, George, Rhamel meant to this program. But for me, for these guys, there’s a major pride factor.”
Masiello highlighted his senior class of Emmy Andujar, RaShawn Stores and Donovan Kates.
“They know how to win,” Masiello said. “That’s what they’re about.”
Stores, who had nine points and three steals against St. Peter’s, was on the court in the waning seconds of last year’s NCAA ticket-puncher.
“We’ve been in this game the last two years, so we just want to get back and have fun,” Stores said. “Tomorrow is about business, but they’re our biggest rival so we know what’s on the line, an NCAA tournament berth.”
The Fran McCaffery era at Siena began in a dorm room in April 2005. Four grown men living in a dorm room, sustaining themselves on a diet of basketball, basketball and basketball. McCaffery and his assistants had inherited a roster in disarray, so they couldn’t waste time ticking off the checklist most people would assemble after relocating — you know, like finding and moving into a house.
“We had to figure out, okay, who’s staying, who’s leaving, who’s eligible, what pieces do we have, what pieces do we need,” McCaffery said.
Five springs later, McCaffery guided Siena to its third straight NCAA tournament appearance. No MAAC team had won three consecutive league titles since La Salle (1988-1990). Four different programs have won the four MAAC tournaments since Siena’s last championship in 2010.
McCaffery built something special in Loudonville. How?
Many college basketball coaches quixotically preach the importance of a family environment only to see their rosters splinter into cliques — the freshmen, the forwards, whatever they might be. That’s only natural. Coaches can’t reasonably expect all of their players to have compatible personalities.
By all accounts, the Saints were inseparable. They loved each other’s company.
“We were all close,” says Tay Fisher, who played for Siena from 2004-08. “We all hung out together on and off the court. We all did things together. We were a family not only on the court. That’s the thing that separates good teams from great teams is that they’re not only teammates — they’re like family — and coach McCaffery made sure we were like family.”
The McCafferys essentially had an open door policy with the Saints. The team would frequent the McCaffery residence to hang out, watch football and basketball games and play with Fran and wife Margaret’s kids.
“My children loved those guys and wanted to play horse with them or hang out with them when they came,” McCaffery says. “They were so excited when they would come to the house.”
If a player got sick, Margaret fed him chicken soup. Fran McCaffery recalls the time Alex Franklin missed a 2008 trip to Memphis with an injury.
“He was at our house because he had a bad back, and [Margaret] was feeding him and taking care of him,” McCaffery says. “I wanted recruits’ parents to know that if they sent their sons to play for me, we were going to look out for them.”
Injuries and illnesses weren’t the only impetuses for meals at coach’s house. Most times, the Saints needed no reason at all. They headed over in a pack, ordered pizza and lined up for Margaret’s patented specialties — apple cake and brownies — for dessert.
“You ask any of the guys, they’ll remember that in a second. Everyone loved that,” says Ryan Rossiter, who played for Siena from 2007-11. “She always made it for us, made it for the dinners. It was everyone’s favorite part of the night.”
“It was pretty good,” says Josh Duell, a Vermont transfer who suited up for Siena from 2007-09, adding with a laugh, “I had to kind of layoff. I wasn’t a fit athlete like all these other guys were, so I couldn’t enjoy it as much as them.”
Those hours spent at the McCaffery’s house helped foster an unbreakable bond, one where teammates — brothers — could rib Duell about his shape and the good-humored Duell would know it was nothing but love.
“We always had jokes with Duell about his weight,” says a chuckling Ronald Moore, whose affectionate tone doesn’t get lost over the phone from Northern Italy, where he’s playing professional basketball. “He was always worried about what he ate. He was always kind of the old man.”
If Duell was the old man, McCaffery was one of the guys.
“My first encounter with Fran, he was joking around,” Moore says. “He knows how kids are. It was real cool to have a conversation with a coach where he’s joking about me talking to girls, whatever the case might be, partying. He was really a down-to-earth guy. Away from the basketball court he didn’t really bring up basketball stuff. He wanted to know about everything else that was going on in your personal life and school, whatever it might be. I don’t know too many coaches who might be willing to care to that extent. You can talk to him like a friend sometimes more than a coach.”
That’s the relationship McCaffery strived to cultivate with his players.
“Once we’re separated from the court, then I want them to be part of my family,” McCaffery says.
“He does an excellent job separating basketball and life,” says Rossiter, who is playing professionally in Japan. “You could have a terrible practice that day. He could be on you for two and a half hours, but he sees you that night or we have a team function that night, he completely forgets about what you messed up in practice. It makes everyone feel comfortable and that they can be themselves.”
The Saints trusted McCaffery as more than a coach, and their bond off the court strengthened their relationship on the court, where they hung on every word McCaffery said in practice and the huddle. Siena had a knack for winning in dramatic fashion. “They had that clutch gene,” former Rider coach Tommy Dempsey says. Moore, of course, is staked to the program’s most famous moment, his double order of onions that beat Ohio State in the NCAA tournament, but the McCaffery-era Saints overcame many a daunting hole.
“You believed in [McCaffrey] when he said, ‘hey, we’re down 10 with two minutes to go, but we’re going to win this game.’ You believed him,” Duell says.
Kenny’s Killer Mentality
McCaffery deflects the credit elsewhere. His Siena teams, he says, had a world-beating attitude. The development of that mindset began with Antoine “Scoop” Jordan, a holdover from the Rob Lanier regime.
A senior on McCaffery’s first team in Loudonville, Jordan was tough, and took a liking to a freshman from Washington D.C., named Kenny Hasbrouck. Jordan, McCaffery says, saw familiar qualities in Hasbrouck: toughness, grittiness and an assured belief in his abilities.
“[Jordan] really put his arm around Kenny and taught him how to prepare and taught him how to get ready,” McCaffery says. “He was kind of hard on him.”
Hasbrouck won the 2005-06 MAAC Rookie of the Year award after averaging 12.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game. Then Jordan graduated, and Kojo Mensah transferred.
Hasbrouck was anointed leader as a sophomore.
“A lot of times it becomes your team when you’re a senior, but it was Kenny’s team,” McCaffery says of the 2006-07 squad.
Hasbrouck became a beacon of toughness to the loaded freshman class of Moore, Franklin and Edwin Ubiles — the most heavily recruited of the bunch, according to McCaffery.
“[Hasbrouck] brought a lot of attitude to the team,” Moore says.
In that group’s sixth game, Hasbrouck battled a fever and put forth a memorable performance. He scored 22 points in 41 minutes as the Saints beat Albany, 76-75, in double overtime before 11,271 people at Times Union Center.
“He was as sick as any player I’ve ever seen,” McCaffery says. “We put an IV in him. He’s not even there for warm-ups. He’s not there for the pregame talk and going over the scouting report one last time. He walks out on the floor, I sub him into the game and he gets . That’s not coaching, okay? That’s nothing at all to do with coaching. That is a tough guy who wants to win, and just think how his teammates responded to him. They didn’t want to let him down. And they didn’t.”
That became a theme over the years, as the Saints followed Hasbrouck’s example.
“He had a killer mentality, where he could shrug stuff off like a closer in baseball,” Rossiter says. “He could have a terrible first half and absolutely dominate the second half. People learned from that.”
In 2008-09, Siena lost just two MAAC games, the latter a 100-85 setback at Niagara on Feb. 27. Hasbrouck shot 2-for-20 for five points.
The two teams met again in the MAAC championship 10 days later. Hasbrouck was nursing a calf injury, and he missed nine of his first 10 shots. That put him at 3-for-30 shooting in about a 50-minute stretch against the Purple Eagles.
“Then in the second half he absolutely took the game over and just won it for us,” Rossiter says.
Hasbrouck scored 17 of his 19 points in the last 16 minutes. He had nine points in a 13-1 Siena run that spanned three minutes and 30 seconds and gave the Saints a 63-51 lead with 5:09 remaining.
Says Rossiter: “He has that what happened happened, I don’t really care attitude. Now I’m just going to get up and come at you that much harder.”
That essentially sums up how Hasbrouck landed at Siena. Disappointed by the scholarship offers he had received in high school, Hasbrouck enrolled at Maine Central Prep for a postgrad year in 2004-05.
“When he went to prep school, he was still on the radar screen, but I don’t know that he was any more on the radar screen than he was before,” McCaffery says. “I think he kind of had in his mind what he was looking for, and it wasn’t happening for him.”
As Hasbrouck waited, interested programs filled their needs. The 2004-05 college season ended, and McCaffery and his staff arrived in Loudonville and recruited the guard from D.C. Hasbrouck, who was also being courted by Jacksonville, visited Siena on graduation weekend in the middle of May.
“That’s very late in the process,” McCaffery says, “and he didn’t commit to us or sign until probably six or eight weeks later.”
But from the day he finally signed until the day he graduated, Hasbrouck personified the toughness and resiliency that became the staples of McCaffery’s Siena teams.
Josh Duell, Star of the Game
The pervasiveness of those traits and the team’s unity with McCaffery off the court enabled a symbiotic relationship between the players and their coach in practices and games. To outsiders, McCaffery frequently appeared on the sidelines as a petulant, irascible lunatic. “Outside looking in, somebody might say he was a little crazy,” Moore laughs. Christopher Lloyd’s Dr. Emmett Brown in “Back to the Future” seemed crazy, too, but he, like McCaffery always had a plan. “He definitely has his moments where he really gets fired up, but everything is calculated,” Rossiter says.
McCaffery berated his players for fundamental mistakes such as setting a screen too early or forcing a pass. If they didn’t box out or drive strong to the bucket, they got an earful from their coach.
“I just have a firm belief that if you’re going to get on one of your guys, it better make sense to him,” McCaffery says. “Even if you’re saying it loudly, it better make sense because if he thinks, well, this guy’s just yelling at me to yell, then we just took a step backward.”
Moore says the players always understood.
“Shortly after that, he would let us know he loved us and wanted the best for us,” Moore says. “We never took it as hard criticism because we knew how he really felt, and he was just trying to motivate us to do better.”
“That’s a win that everybody sort of forgot,” McCaffery says, “but we don’t win that game without Josh Duell, and I buried him early in the game because he wouldn’t shoot the ball. Think about it, I’m yelling at him to shoot: ‘I put you in to shoot. I want you to shoot. I’m setting you up. You’re going to make those shots.’”
His words were prophetic. As Siena did so frequently under McCaffery, the Saints corralled a miss and raced up court, holding a 47-46 lead with about 10 minutes remaining. Duell, who had attempted — and missed — just two shots, caught a pass from Chris De La Rosa behind the 3-point line. Emboldened by McCaffery’s demands, he let fly. Bang. Fisher buried a trey on Siena’s next possession, and then the ball found Duell again. He splashed in another 3-pointer, giving Siena a 56-46 lead. Stanford did not shrink the gap to single-digits again until the final minute, and Duell finished with 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field.
“He blows the game open and the roof’s coming off the place and he’s the star of the game afterwards,” McCaffery says. “He’s going against Lopez. Josh Duell against Lopez, and Josh Duell is the star of the game.”
Just Another Game
Stanford was the second of four high-profile tests McCaffery inserted into Siena’s non-conference schedule that season. It was the only of the four the Saints won — they lost to Syracuse and Saint Joseph’s in close games before getting vanquished by Memphis, the eventual national runner-up.
“I think Coach Mac knew he had tough guys that weren’t going to get down if we played one of those teams and didn’t hang with them,” says Duell, who earned a law degree and landed a job with a financial advisory firm in the Albany area. “That’s what happened at Memphis, but it was a great experience for us. When we put that together and came back for the MAAC, it was a little different. He knew we wouldn’t take those losses too hard and they’d just help us, and that’s what happened.”
Says Fisher: “After playing Memphis when they have one of the best teams in the country with Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts and then playing Stanford that year with the Lopez boys, once you play Villanova and Vanderbilt it’s like, hey, it’s just another game. There’s no difference.”
Before the Saints faced Vanderbilt and Villanova in the 2008 NCAA tournament, however, they needed to secure the MAAC’s automatic bid. The quest was far from easy. They won a pair of games in early February thanks to the clutch gene Dempsey, the former Rider coach, noted. First, Hasbrouck forced overtime on a late layup against Marist, then Duell beat the buzzer and Dempsey’s Broncs not even 48 hours later.
But they couldn’t hit the big shots in their next two games, falling in overtime to Loyola Maryland and by one at Manhattan. In the latter, Hasbrouck had a good look for a buzzer-beating winner, but his stepback from the right side rimmed out.
“When a guy like him, he’s so used to making those big plays, misses, it’s a shock,” Duell says.
That was Feb. 18. The Saints did not lose again until March 23.
They almost did not get that far.
Jimmy Patsos’ Greyhounds held a 17-point lead late in the first half of the MAAC semifinal. With the home crowd at Times Union Center on their side, though, the Saints battled back into the game with Hasbrouck scoring all 17 of his points after the break. They finally evened the score on Alex Franklin’s putback with 1:13 left. Siena forced a miss on the ensuing possession, and, given the circumstances, drained the clock after an initial push wasn’t available. As the shot clock wound down, Hasbrouck put the ball on the deck and penetrated the lane.
Says Duell: “I just was floating around when Kenny drove to the hole. Any time a player like him drives to the hole he draws three or four guys.”
Rather than force a tough shot, Hasbrouck had the presence of mind to dump the ball down to Duell, whose layup with 19.4 seconds left gave Siena its first lead since early in the first half.
“The biggest part of that whole game, after that happened, Alex Franklin blocked a wide-open layup with five seconds to go,” Duell says. “That kind of goes under the radar because of the big moment Kenny had, but Alex saved the game.”
It was Fisher’s turn for the big moment the following night, his 22nd birthday and the Saints’ championship clash with Jason Thompson and Rider. The teams had split the season series, and Rider torched Siena for 59 first-half points in an 89-75 win at Times Union Center on Feb. 2.
Through the first 13 minutes that Monday night in March, neither team led by more than four points. They seemed destined for another tight finish, like the one at Rider on Feb. 10, when Duell’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer lifted Siena.
Then Fisher scored 13 points in a three-minute stretch, and Siena took a 38-27 lead. The birthday boy finished with 21 points, leading the Saints to their first MAAC championship under McCaffery, a 74-53 throttling of Rider.
“It was a great night for me, and then the team was just so happy not only that we made it but because we did it all together as a team,” Fisher says. “We all hung out after that. It was one of those birthdays that you never forget.”
Recalls Dempsey: “We had a couple moments where I thought we could have gotten back in the game or taken a lead, and they always made the big play in the big moment. That’s what I thought defined that group, and eventually they pulled away and the place was rocking. It was a great college basketball season for our team, but we ran into a little bit of a bus in the finals against a team that had really come into their own.”
It’s Siena, Not Sienna
Six days later, the Saints gathered to watch the NCAA’s Selection Sunday show.
“We have the big party, we invite everybody, you know how fun that is,” McCaffery says. “As a coach, to watch your players enjoy that with their families, it’s everything you want to experience. Your name comes up, everybody jumps up, everybody’s hugging. It’s like you won it again.”
Their name popped up next to Vanderbilt, a No. 4 seed hailing from the powerful SEC. Siena would face the Commodores in Tampa Bay on March 21 in one of the first round’s last games. Vanderbilt was led by Shan Foster, the SEC Player of the Year who had just notched the 1,998th point of his career, and A.J. Ogilvy, a 6-foot-11 Australian center for whom the Saints had no physical match. Not even four weeks earlier, Foster dropped 32 points as Vanderbilt upset No. 1 Tennessee.
That all added up to Vanderbilt entering the Friday night game as the prohibitive favorite over Siena.
“No one knew about us,” Fisher says. “People were spelling our name with two Ns, like the car [Toyota’s minivan].”
Siena introduced itself to the college basketball world with a barrage of 3-pointers and McCaffery’s patented high-pressure, fast-paced style of play. The Saints never trailed, and, again, it was Fisher who created separation by burying three 3-pointers in three minutes to give Siena a 26-13 lead. By halftime, Siena held a 46-34 advantage.
“We went into that game not wanting it to be close, going right at them from the beginning,” says Fisher, who scored 19 points and sank all six of his 3-point attempts. He attributes the Harlem Globetrotters career he has forged directly to that performance.
Foster scored 11 points in that first half, surpassing the 2,000-point mark for his career. If the Commodores could ride him in the second half, they would have a solid chance of overcoming the deficit.
Edwin Ubiles would have none of that.
Even as a sophomore — on a team with Hasbrouck, no less — Ubiles was Siena’s leading scorer at 17 points per game. The athletic 6-foot-6 wing could almost effortlessly pour in 20 points. “He makes things look so easy because he’s so good,” Duell says. But McCaffery needed something more valuable than buckets from his 6-foot-6 wing, who matched up inch-for-inch, pound-for-pound with Foster.
“I said Eddie, personally I’ve watched 14 games,” McCaffery remembers. “I think you’re better than [Foster]. I know he’s the SEC Player of the Year — and I still think he’s better than Shan Foster — but he believed he was better than Shan Foster. I said, ‘if you take the SEC Player of the Year out of the game, they can’t beat us.’ That’s what he did.”
Foster scored just two points after the break, and Siena pulled away for an 83-62 win. “That messed up everybody’s bracket,” Fisher says. “That’s what we wanted to do.” And while Hasbrouck torched the Commodores for 30 points — “He was out of his mind,” Rossiter says — Ubiles was the unsung hero, reinforcing the selfless attitude that characterized McCaffery’s Siena teams.
Says McCaffery: “It would have been easy for Edwin to say, ‘wait, I want to be a first round draft pick. I want to get 30. Why is Kenny getting 30?’ Because I need you to shut down Shan Foster so we can run into the locker room and jump on top of each other.”
Ubiles, who is playing professionally in Puerto Rico, was all for it.
Though the Saints wouldn’t get another opportunity to celebrate that March — No. 12 Villanova knocked them out two days later — the win over Vanderbilt would be far from the most dramatic victory in program history.
Why the Slipper Fit
Other than the Vanderbilt upset, one thing about the 2007-08 season stands out in Duell’s memory.
“The jump Ronald, Alex and Edwin made from freshman to sophomore years,” he says. “Everybody tells you that’s the biggest jump, but man those guys turned into all-league players in one year. They were never scared to go out and play with the best.”
Ubiles joined Hasbrouck on the All-MAAC First Team, and Franklin was a second teamer. Moore, who did not receive any accolades as a sophomore, averaged 8.6 points, 5.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Their complementary skill sets stimulated growth in each other and fostered a cohesive unit that flowed with the ease of midnight traffic on I-87.
Not only did Hasbrouck and Franklin go on to win MAAC Player of the Year awards and forge high-level pro careers, but so did Rossiter, a freshman on that 2007-08 team. Clarence Jackson, another freshman who Rossiter says scored 34 against Dionte Christmas and Temple in a secret scrimmage, would eventually become an all-league player and pro overseas.
“We also had a guy that led the nation in assists (Moore), and then the other guy (Ubiles) scored more points than all of them,” McCaffery says. “It’s not only that we were able to get those guys there, but their skill sets blended. It’s what everybody tries to do, but rarely can you assemble that much talent at one place and have them all sort of be in their primes together. That’s what we had.”
“Their pieces fit,” Dempsey says. “Their best players were all guys that played different positions, so they had the good inside presence [in Rossiter]. They had Ubiles who was the ultimate wing player in college basketball, with the great size and athleticism and flashing ability. They had Hasbrouck, who was a great shooter but could also do a little bit more than that, and Franklin at power forward, and they mixed in some other big kids that were good role players at that time. Then they had the point guard that made it all work in Ronald Moore.”
“That is rare, to get that much talent at one place,” McCaffery says.
With its entire 2007-08 roster intact — minus Fisher — the Saints were the favorites to cut down the MAAC tournament’s nets in 2008-09. They had a stiff challenge in Niagara, a team loaded with talent capable of making the MAAC a two-bid league. They also had a veritable target on their backs. Everyone wanted to upset the defending champs, and they would try anything that could aid their chances.
The Saints’ race through the league — they went 16-2 in 2008-09 — was emblematic of the pace at which they played. Sleeping on them for one second could lead to an easy bucket.
“Just as much as a team gets down on themselves after a miss, they like to pat themselves on the back after a make,” Rossiter says, “so I remember times where a team would score on us and before they even crossed halfcourt, we had already hit a layup on the other side.”
Rossiter remembers a game at Niagara — Feb. 27, 2009, the same night Hasbrouck shot 2-for-20 for five points in a 100-85 Purple Eagles win — when the Saints’ opponent pulled a trick out of its sleeve to slow them down.
“We come out at halftime and we see a guy on a ladder changing the net to a brand new net,” says Rossiter, inferring the Purple Eagles wanted a stiffer net to cradle their made baskets and slow down Siena’s break. “Coach Mac sees this, and he almost threw the guy off the ladder in the middle of the gym.”
The tactic hardly worked, as Siena broke out for 54 points after halftime. Niagara, however, held on for the win.
Other teams weren’t as lucky, even when an upset appeared imminent. Such was the case at Marist that Jan. 15. The Red Foxes, who would finish the season 10-23, led by 14 points with 3:20 left. Siena outscored its hosts 23-9 through the end of regulation and won, 91-85, in overtime.
“We appreciated how hard teams were coming at us,” McCaffery says. “We never overlooked an opponent. We respected that we may go over [to Marist] and get that kind of game from them.”
And despite everyone’s best efforts and all the pressure heaped on Siena to repeat, the Saints breezed through to the MAAC championship game for a rematch with Niagara. Hasbrouck had his memorable second half, and, once again, the Saints cut down the nets.
Had Siena lost to Niagara, the Saints likely would have received an at-large bid. However, that would have altered fate, preventing the most historic call in program history from materializing at the lips of a broadcasting legend.
Onions! Double Order!
The venerable Bill Raftery has proclaimed, “Onions!” after many a clutch shot, quite literally referring to a player’s testicular fortitude with the pressure ramped high. If you’ve got balls, in Raftery’s lingo, you’ve got “Onions!”
Had Raftery called every Siena game during the Fran McCaffery era, he would have had plenty of opportunities to shout the iconic catchphrase before Siena’s first-round clash with Ohio State in the 2009 NCAA tournament. There was the time Rossiter calmly sank two foul shots with two seconds left, as Siena overcame an 18-point second-half deficit to win at Saint Joseph’s, and there was Ubiles’ jumper with four seconds left that beat Iona, 69-68. Duell once nailed a trey with 1.3 seconds left to beat Jason Thompson and Rider, 80-77. His layup with 19 seconds remaining in the Saints’ 2008 MAAC semifinal against Loyola Md. was the winning touch on a 17-point comeback. Hasbrouck also had his “Onions!” moments, beating the buzzer for a 61-60 win over Iona in 2007 and forcing overtime on a layup at Marist in 2008.
There were other moments, too, and none involved Ronald Moore forcing an overtime or sinking a game-winner.
The guard from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania did both against Ohio State, with Raftery on the call.
In overtime against the eighth-seeded Buckeyes, ninth-seeded Siena needed just one stop to gain possession with a chance to win the game. Evan Turner, the eventual No. 2 pick in the 2010 NBA draft, had the ball in his hands for Ohio State, but Siena forced him into a tough stepback from the right wing with about 15 seconds left and the Buckeyes clinging to a 63-62 lead. The shot missed, but B.J. Mullens got a fingertip on the rebound over Hasbrouck and flung a one-handed pass to P.J. Hill up top as he fell out of bounds on the baseline.
Moore had no choice. He had to foul Hill.
Ohio State’s point guard sank both foul shots to extend the lead to 65-62 with nine seconds remaining. McCaffery had called timeout before Hill’s foul shots to set up a play, designed for Hasbrouck to get a 3-point look in the right corner.
“I knew when coach drew it up, I didn’t want to tell him, but I kind of had a doubt that it was going to work to begin with,” says a chuckling Moore.
Moore took the inbounds pass and raced up floor. Hasbrouck cut across the baseline and used a Ubiles pick of Turner to get to the corner. Ohio State, however, switched the screen. William Buford draped Hasbrouck, leaving Moore with one option.
“Ohio State, being the smart team they are, decided to switch it,” Moore recalls. “I was seeing that develop as Kenny was going to the corner, and with not much time left, I had to make an instinct play. We needed a three.”
Hill, playing the pass, had sagged off Moore just enough for Siena’s floor general to get a clean look from the right wing. As the shot sank through the net with 3.5 seconds left, Raftery, in near disbelief, shouted, “Ohhhh, onions!”
Ohio State misfired on the other end. Moore, who had missed nine of his first 11 shots, had forced a second overtime.
“Ronald can miss 10 in a row, and he still feels like he’s going to make that 11th shot,” Fisher says. “That’s just the type of person he is.”
A forgotten tidbit about the second overtime is that Moore missed one of his two foul shots with 35 seconds left, opening the door for Turner to stake the Buckeyes to a 72-71 lead with 18 seconds remaining. The junior more than made up for the miss at the stripe.
Needing just one point to tie and a bucket to win, Ubiles flashed to the high post on Siena’s last possession. Moore couldn’t safely feed him the ball, so Ubiles slipped out to the left wing to catch a pass. As he dribbled back inside the arc, he had two options: take a difficult shot or kick the ball out. Time was winding down, but he had enough for the latter.
“Everybody in the building thought Ubiles was going to shoot that ball,” McCaffery says, “and had he shot the ball and missed and we had lost, nobody would have said a word to him. It would have been essentially a 2,000-point scorer taking a shot.”
But by putting the ball on the deck, Ubiles had drawn Buford towards the lane, leaving Moore open on the right wing. Ubiles passed him the ball.
“It was from the same spot,” Moore says. “In my mind, I was like, ‘I just hit one from right here, why not go for it again?’”
So, again, Moore rose. Buford closed late, and Rossiter battled under the hoop for a potential game-winning putback.
“Luckily I didn’t need to,” Rossiter says.
The ball settled in the net with 3.9 seconds left. Ohio State called timeout, and Raftery graced the air with a phrase that has become timeless at Siena: “Ohhhh, onions! Double order!” Moore raised his arms above his head. Franklin and Hasbrouck ran to him and wrapped their arms around his torso. They were just an Evan Turner missed leaner from advancing to the second round for the second straight year.
“That was a classic,” Fisher says.
So classic that Siena fans printed “Onions Double Order” shirts. The following March, when Raftery visited Albany to call Siena’s MAAC championship game against Fairfield, Moore presented him with the shirt.
“Anyone near Siena, if you say ‘Onions Double Order’ they know exactly what you’re talking about,” Rossiter says. “It’s one of those Siena things now that if you’re any sort of fan, you know exactly what someone’s talking about when they say that. It’s a great memory for me. I’m sure you can imagine for Ron.”
“It gives me chills,” Moore says. “It’s a great flashback.”
End of an Era
The end of the Fran McCaffery era at Siena ended in a dorm room, just like it began.
The Saints, who had lost a close game to top-seeded Louisville after beating Ohio State, had won their third straight MAAC tournament a few weeks earlier. In classic Siena fashion, McCaffery’s bunch had overcome a 13-point second-half deficit to beat Fairfield, 72-65, in overtime in the 2010 MAAC final.
The Saints drew a No. 13 seed and a first round date with No. 4 Purdue, which had lost star player Robbie Hummel to an ACL tear in late February. When Hummel went down, Purdue was ranked third in the country. The Boilermakers were talented, though, and had two other future NBA players — E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson — on the roster.
For the first time under McCaffery, Siena failed to advance in the Big Dance. The Saints had cut Purdue’s 15-point lead to three in five minutes, but they couldn’t finish the comeback in the final 60 seconds.
That was March 19.
Despite the loss, McCaffery’s phone rang steadily in the ensuing days. He had built Siena into a mid-major power, and programs across the country courted his services.
The Saints were awoken in their rooms early Sunday March 28. The assistant coaches had been sent as messengers, telling them to gather in the locker room. Team meeting. Nine days after the Saints had Purdue on the ropes. Twenty days after they had won their third straight league championship.
“We all kind of put it together before he got in the room,” Rossiter remembers.
Then McCaffery told his players the news they had dreaded: He had accepted the head coaching position at Iowa. He was leaving Siena.
“Once he said the words, it was almost like a knife to the heart for a lot of us,” Rossiter says.
They appreciated the gesture, though. Not that they expected anything else from McCaffery.
“He wanted to tell us face-to-face that he was taking the Iowa job,” Rossiter says. “He didn’t want us to be watching TV and hear, ‘Fran McCaffery to Iowa.’ That’s just the stand-up guy he is and shows us how much he appreciated us. He thanked us for getting him the job.”
The decision required strenuous thought. The grass — or in Iowa’s case, the cornfield — isn’t always greener, but the Hawkeyes boasted a robust basketball budget in comparison to Siena’s and called the Big Ten home.
“My family loved living in Albany,” McCaffery says. “My wife loved it there. We loved our team. We loved the people we worked for. I was prepared to be the coach there for as long as they would have me, and I said that when I was hired [at Siena] it would take a very special opportunity to ever get me to leave. That’s what I honestly believed [the Iowa] opportunity was.”
It has been five years since McCaffery strolled the Times Union Center sidelines. Last year, he led Iowa to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006. The Hawkeyes are in good position to earn another at-large bid on Selection Sunday.
The Saints, meanwhile, have had just one winning season — 2013-14 — since McCaffery left. They earned the No. 8 seed in this year’s conference tournament and beat Niagara in the opening round, but they’ll need three more wins in as many days to return to the NCAA tournament.
No MAAC team has won consecutive conference tournaments since Siena, though Manhattan, the No. 3 seed, has a chance to defend its 2014 title. Even if the Jaspers cut down the nets Monday night, they would only be two-thirds of the way to matching Siena’s feat.
“Every year something can go wrong,” Duell says. “Injuries can happen, things happen that you can’t control. At Siena, we were just fortunate that we were able to stay relatively healthy, everybody was on the same page, we had a special group of kids. It’s something that you don’t see all the time, and that’s what made it so special.”
“It,” McCaffery says, “was an amazing ride, no question.”
Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter for more on the MAAC and college basketball.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and, no, this is not an outdated story from the holiday season.
March is here. Seeds are set. The 2015 MAAC tournament is encroaching ever so quickly.
So let’s take a look at the teams and the best potential matchups as we wait.
The Teams (by seed)
1. Iona (24-7, 17-3)
The regular-season champs are back at full strength — or, at least, are fielding their complete lineup. Isaiah Williams may not be fully in game shape after returning from the stress fracture in his foot, but just having him available adds another dimension to Iona’s rotation. He’s the team’s best defender. Even if he’s not scoring the ball — though he did just fine with 12 points in 32 minutes against Manhattan on Feb. 27 — he’ll aid the Gaels’ defense with his instincts and athleticism.
The Gaels were already the favorite without Williams. Now, it’ll be even harder to beat them.
That said, if someone does upset Iona, Tim Cluess’ squad will be banished to the NIT. The Gaels have no chance of obtaining an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They need to win the MAAC tournament to break into the Big Dance.
They’re 0-3 against RPI top 100 teams, with four losses against RPI sub-150 teams. ESPN has their non-conference strength of schedule at No. 95 nationally, while KenPom has it at No. 87.
It’s just not happening.
Gaels fans — and Jimmy Patsos, who clamored for Iona to receive an at-large bid on Monday’s MAAC conference call — if you haven’t already come to grips with this, you must.
2. Rider (21-10, 15-5)
Give the Broncs credit. When the verdict on Matt Lopez’s season-ending ACL tear came down, Rider seemed to be in a perilous state. Lopez had been the team’s most consistent player all year. Kevin Baggett dubbed the 7-footer Rider’s MVP. No way could the Broncs survive without him.
Well, they have so far. Though they lost to Niagara without Lopez — their first full game without their center — the Broncs rallied for wins over Monmouth and Marist to end the season.
But how far can they go without their center, especially considering they would need three wins in three days to reach their first NCAA tournament since 1994?
3. Manhattan (16-13, 13-7)
The defending champs played their way into the No. 3 seed, clinching it in the season finale against Quinnipiac. They’re not as formidable as the team that featured George Beamon, Rhamel Brown and Mike Alvarado last year, but Manhattan is more than capable of returning to the NCAA tournament.
Led by All-MAAC First Teamer Emmy Andujar, Manhattan has had a shot late in just about every league game this season, save road games against Quinnipiac, Niagara and Fairfield.
The Jaspers took Rider to overtime twice, and Lopez dominated the second game. They lost to Iona twice by seven total points. Those are the only teams that swept Manhattan.
4. Monmouth (17-14, 13-7)
Every coach says his team thinks it can beat anybody, but the Hawks have to like their bracket because they know they can beat anybody standing between them and the championship game.
Monmouth swept Canisius, Niagara and Siena. Even Iona couldn’t sweep the Hawks, falling in a 92-89 thriller on Dec. 7 and coming back for a 69-68 win on Feb. 22.
Keep in mind that Monmouth lost twice to Manhattan and Quinnipiac and split with Rider, the loss coming against a Matt Lopez-less Broncs squad. So, basically, the Hawks should be happy with the No. 4 seed.
5. Canisius (16-13, 11-9)
The Golden Griffins bounced back from a four-game skid with four wins in their final five regular-season games. They’re hot, but what does that really mean? We’re not going to get into a discussion on whether or not momentum exists right now. But here’s what matters: Canisius showed it can win without Phil Valenti and Jermaine Crumpton.
Why does that matter? Valenti, an all-MAAC caliber forward, last suited up on Jan. 30, when he severely sprained an ankle in Canisius’ win over Quinnipiac. He has a chance to play, though Jim Baron said Monday that Valenti had not yet practiced. Crumpton, a freshman averaging 7.3 points per game, is out for the season.
Can Canisius make a run?
Unlikely, but maybe. Role players such as Josiah Heath and Jeremiah Williams have stepped up in recent weeks, and any team with a scorer as potent as Zach Lewis has a chance to get hot.
6. Quinnipiac (15-14, 9-11)
While Canisius rides a solid stretch into the tournament, Quinnipiac doesn’t — if you define “solid” by tangible results. But Tom Moore said Monday on the conference call that he and his staff were encouraged by the performances, despite the results that materialized in four losses in five games. The Bobcats lost to Manhattan, Canisius and Iona by nine total points in three of those games.
We know that Quinnipiac will attack the glass with reckless abandon, particularly on the offensive end, where they have a rebounding clip of 41.6 percent (No. 2 nationally). Zaid Hearst is one of the best lockdown defenders in the MAAC, and Ousmane Drame is the league’s most formidable rim protector. If the Bobcats can hit enough shots — a big “if” for a team that ranks 331st in the country with a 44.1 percent effective field-goal percentage ranks — they can beat anyone in their way.
7. Saint Peter’s (14-17, 8-12)
The Peacocks beat Iona in the season-finale, snapping a four-game skid that included a loss at Fairfield. The Gaels couldn’t lose their No. 1 seed for the MAAC tournament, which they locked up a week earlier, but anyone who thinks Iona had nothing to play for is wrong.
As previously noted, Iona has no chance at an at-large bid. That wouldn’t have changed with a win over Saint Peter’s. However, Iona is still jockeying for NCAA tournament seeding, and the loss dropped them from a No. 12 to a No. 13 in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology.
So Saint Peter’s picked up a solid win that John Dunne said he hopes boosts the team’s confidence entering the tournament.
8. Siena (10-19, 7-13)
The Saints go down as the biggest disappointment of the year, but they have an opportunity to make amends as the MAAC tournament hosts. That doesn’t seem likely, though.
Marquis Wright and Rob Poole are two of the league’s best players at their respective positions, but Poole is not fully healthy. The senior is battling an ankle injury that will require surgery in the offseason. Jimmy Patsos rested Poole in the season finale at Monmouth because he feared two games in three days would be more than the ankle could handle. If Poole’s condition hasn’t improved significantly by Thursday, how is Siena supposed to win four games in five days?
9. Niagara (8-21, 7-13)
Chris Casey’s young squad closed the season on a four-game winning streak, including victories at Rider and Canisius. The Purple Eagles are hardly built to reel off four wins in four games, and it’s hard to imagine them making a run, given they would face Iona in the quarterfinals.
The future is bright at Niagara. It’s just not here yet.
10. Fairfield (7-23, 5-15)
There was a time — after Fairfield beat Manhattan and Quinnipiac to open MAAC play — that I wrote, only half-jokingly, that this seemed like the year a team like Fairfield would win the conference tournament. Now, you’re probably more likely to see Barry Rohrssen step in as Kentucky’s head coach in 2015-16.
The Stags have lost 12 of their last 13. But they clobbered their opening-round opponent — Saint Peter’s — last Friday, and they took their potential quarterfinal foe — Rider — to overtime on Feb. 5. Then, who could they face in the semis? Manhattan or Quinnipiac, maybe? Wow, maybe Fairfield actually has a chance.
11. Marist (6-24, 5-15)
Tom Moore promised his Quinnipiac team wouldn’t overlook Marist in the opening round — not after the Red Foxes nearly beat the Bobcats in January. Since then, Marist has won five of its 12 games, as Khallid Hart and T.J. Curry have returned to full health.
Marist’s offensive talent is streaky enough that a hot shooting night or two could bust the bracket.
The Favorite: Iona
Seriously, could it be anyone else? The regular-season champs hardly skipped a beat without Isaiah Williams, as role players filled in admirably. Now Williams is back. Even if he was rusty against Saint Peter’s less than 48 hours after playing 32 minutes against Manhattan, at least he’s an option. And if he’s feeling drained later in the tournament, Tim Cluess has more confidence now in his other players.
The Bobcats may not have a gaudy record, but they have the pieces and potential matchups to make a run, even if they need to win four games in five days. Though they don’t force turnovers at a high rate, they have the league’s third-most efficient defense, thanks largely to top-30 marks in effective field-goal percentage (44.6 percent) and offensive rebounding percentage allowed (26.7 percent). Zaid Hearst and Ousmane Drame lead the defensive effort, with Hearst’s shutdown ability and Drame’s rim protection (10.2 percent block rate, No. 32 nationally).
Can the Bobcats crash the glass with their usual ferocity and sustain a high-level defensive effort for four games in five days? Can they score enough points against stout defenses like Manhattan’s and Rider’s? If they can, they can beat any potential opponent. Quinnipiac split with Manhattan (more on that matchup in a bit) and gave Rider and Iona runs for their money. Quinnipiac also swept Monmouth.
Most Intriguing (Potential) Matchups
No. 1 Iona vs. (at?) No. 8 Siena
Siena first needs to get past a hot Niagara team, but the prospects of the regular-season champs playing in a road environment are exciting, if concerning for the league. Iona is the MAAC’s best team — without a doubt — and has the best chance to advance in the NCAA tournament, which would earn the league a hefty paycheck. Should the No. 1 seed ever be in the position of playing a road game in the tournament? It’s all water under the bridge if Iona beats Siena. If, somehow, the depleted Saints pull off the upset, expect a massive eruption of criticism towards the MAAC. That’s what happened when No. 4 Albany knocked off No. 1 Stony Brook and No. 1 Vermont in consecutive years as the America East tournament host.
No. 3 Manhattan vs. No. 6 Quinnipiac
These teams split the season series, plus Manhattan eliminated Quinnipiac in last year’s semifinals. The Bobcats haven’t forgotten that, and they have the recipe to return the favor in this year’s quarterfinal: crash the glass as always, coax Ashton Pankey into foul trouble and employ Zaid Hearst’s defensive ability to shut down Shane Richards. That worked in the first meeting between these two teams, and if Quinnipiac replicates that effort, Manhattan will likely be one-and-done.
On the other hand, Manhattan’s ability to make shots would affect the game twofold. Not only would the Jaspers put points on the board, but they also would set up their press, which could wreak havoc on a turnover prone team like Quinnipiac. That’s what happened in the season finale, when the Bobcats coughed up the ball on 26.4 percent of their possessions.
Of course, this is basketball. Quinnipiac could all but eliminate Pankey and Richards and still lose, just as Manhattan could harass Quinnipiac and fall short. Regardless, seeing how those gameplans would play out would make this a must-watch matchup.
No. 1 Iona vs. No. 4 Monmouth
Who (other than Canisius, Siena and Niagara fans) wouldn’t love a rematch of Iona and Monmouth? The first meeting was a thrilling offensive showcase in West Long Branch, with the Hawks coming out on top, 92-89. Then, we saw the Hawks’ stoicism on display in the second meeting, when they easily could have folded after blowing a 16-point second-half lead in five minutes. Monmouth went punch for punch in the last 13 minutes, but ultimately fell short after A.J. English’s three-point play in the final minute.
No. 1 Iona vs. No. 3 Manhattan
Okay, so Iona is in three of the four most intriguing matchups, but what did you expect? No way Saint Peter’s clash with Fairfield would ever make the cut, for instance, and any game the Gaels play from here on out has to be must-watch TV. All the more so when the opponent is Manhattan.
Though Iona swept the series, Manhattan was right there until the final few possessions each time. Plus these rivals have split the last two MAAC tournament championships. Enough said? Enough said.
Marist senior Tourron Whitfield has spent his entire college career buried at the bottom of the depth chart for losing teams, paying his own way through school as a four-year walk-on while serving as cannon fodder in practice and a glorified cheerleader on game days for players enjoying a free ride.
He’s cherished every moment of it.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was young,” says Whitfield. “Most people don’t get the chance to play collegiate basketball, let alone Division I collegiate basketball, so every day I just try to be grateful for the opportunity I have and make the most of it.“
The 6-foot-2-inch, 170-pound guard has played in just 35 total games and 52 total minutes over the course of his four-year career. He has never had a season when he averaged more than 2.2 minutes or 0.5 points per game. During that same period, the Red Foxes have lost 82 games and never once approached the top of the MAAC standings.
Walk-ons come in all shapes and sizes and from all different backgrounds, and most dream of working their way onto the court and into a scholarship. Sometimes walk-ons leave the team, the external pressures of school and life overweighing the minimal rewards they reap for toiling in anonymity.
But for Whitfield, who has remained constant at Marist while scholarship players and paid coaches have passed through the program like a turnstile, the idea of quitting was never even a passing thought.
Basketball was in his blood, and an indelible part of his identity.
“The love of the game has always been there and it always will be there,” he says. “The losing games was never a factor or possible reason to quit; that all comes with the trials and tribulations of the season.”
Falling in love with the game
Whitfield was born and raised in a rough section of Queens, New York, and it was in basketball that he first found a passion and then a purpose.
“Growing up, basketball was something that my friends and I liked to play a lot, it kept us active,” he says.
It also kept him and his friends from veering down the dead-end streets and darkened alleys that claimed so many of their peers.
“It kept us from doing bad things, it kept us out of the nonsense — stuff that you can get caught up in out in the neighborhood. Basically it gave us a sense of community.”
Whitfield suited up in high school for legendary Archbishop Molloy head coach Jack Curran. He played sizable minutes and earned the prestigious Coaches Award as a senior. Whitfield credits the late Curran for leaving a lasting impact on him both on and off the court and encouraging him to pursue his dreams of playing Division I college ball.
“Playing for one of the legendary coaches Jack Curran, may he rest in peace, it was a great experience to learn from him,” Whitfield says. “He basically showed us you can be a great athlete; you can be a great scholar. If you follow in his teachings and everything, you can do great things.”
Following his heart
When Whitfield’s career at Archbishop Molloy came to an end, the Division I scholarships he had dreamed of didn’t materialize. Whitfield did have an offer to play for a lower-division school, but the fire to play Division I basketball was still burning bright inside him.
“Coming out of high school, I had maybe one offer that was not full scholarship, but it was at a school that I did not feel was the right fit for myself or for my family,” he says.
Whitfield had visited Marist as a senior in high school, and despite the downtrodden state of the program and not having any guarantees about making the team, he decided to chase his dream at a school he had fallen in love with the second he set foot on campus.
“The love of the game mixed with just wanting to see if I could do something or be one of those lucky people that plays collegiate basketball: All of that motivated me to walk-on this team,” says Whitfield.
“I visited as a senior in high school and I checked the record; yeah, they’d been going through a tough year, and I wanted to be a part of the group that came to this school to make a difference. And while I was not able to do that by attaining a scholarship, I decided the next best thing would be to try to walk-on and make my mark on this program that way.”
Whitfield has played — or, for the most part, practiced under — three coaches during his four years in Poughkeepsie, and seen many players jump into what many would perceive as lifeboats out of a sinking program during that time, but he has never wanted a way out.
“The coaching changes were a minor problem, but when I looked at my other senior teammates and I saw that they weren’t going to quit, it just motivated me to jump on and not quit as well,” he says. “I came in with these guys; I planned on riding it out with them for the four years that they were here.”
Whitfield spent his first two seasons playing under then head coach Chuck Martin, before he was fired following the 2013 season. Martin’s replacement Jeff Bower lasted exactly one season before bolting to become the general manager of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. When Mike Maker was hired in the summer of 2014, he became Whitfield’s third coach in four years. But Whitfield quickly warmed to Maker, a winner for Division III power Williams College, with whom he found similarities to his high school mentor Curran.
“The coaching change obviously is present, but we’ve accepted Coach Maker as our guy into the Marist family. He’s accepted us; he does a great job at keeping us positive,” says Whitfield.
Over the past four seasons, Whitfield’s statistics have not matched the player and person that he is seen as in the program. His contributions have far exceeded numbers on a scorecard at the end of the night.
“Whether it’s going scout team, or whether they need to me to cheer them on, or whether they need me to be the guy that they need for advice, I tend to do whatever it is to my capability to make sure I make myself better and make my teammates better,” says Whitfield.
Making his mark
Whitfield’s career numbers on the court at Marist — averaged 0.3 points, 0.1 rebounds, 0.1 assists — will hardly merit a footnote in the Red Foxes’ all-time archives. But his numbers in the classroom have been massive, earning MAAC All-Academic team honors with a GPA north of 3.2 from his sophomore year on.
“To me it just shows how you can be rewarded for doing things off the court as well as on the court,” he says. “Not everyone is going to be a great scorer, not everyone’s a great athlete, but anyone can be somewhat decent in the classroom.”
According to Whitfield, his excellence in the classroom can be directly attributed to his parents.
“My mother and father both instilled in me from a young age that books come before ball, and so I just try to carry that lesson throughout my whole entire life, and make sure that I do something to have a backup plan,” he says.
While Whitfield’s statistics will never jump off the page no matter the context, he says that he has experienced personal growth on the court as well, going from a role as a practice dummy during his first two seasons when he played a combined five games and just six minutes, to seeing spot minutes as a junior, and becoming a leader as a senior.
“As a senior, my main role is to lead by example, teach the younger guys, and help the coaching staff,” he says. “This is our third coaching staff in the four years that I’ve been here, and so the transition is not as easy for some guys. As a senior my job is to basically help the younger guys understand their role and come together so we can win some games and realize one single goal.”
Whitfield has also enjoyed testing himself against Marist’s stars in practice, and has seen his own game grow as a result of hard work.
“For the four years, I was taking it all in and I maneuvered through practices and I challenge myself to guard some of the best players,” he says. “So, out of the four years that I’ve been here, we’ve seen players like Devin Price, Jay Bowie, Chavaughn Lewis, who is my co-senior. Those are all great guys, great players with the Marist program. I tried to challenge myself to guard them and work with them, and get better and improve my own game.
“After four years in doing that, I feel that my game has evolved to where I can guard and play with some of those guys. It’s good for when I go and play in these other leagues, which are not necessarily as competitive as the MAAC basketball, but it’s for the love of the game.”
One last unto the breach
It’s been a rough season for Whitfield and the Red Foxes, who finished tied for last place, going 6-24 overall and 5-15 in the MAAC.
“This season we’ve seen our fair share of trials and tribulations. We’ve had numerous amounts of injuries, we’ve had guys sick,” says Whitfield.
Marist will face off against sixth-seeded Quinnipiac in the first round of the conference tournament on March 5 in Albany, New York, and take the floor as decided underdogs. But Whitfield refuses to end his career by going quietly into the night.
“I believe that we are way better than what our record says,” he says. “Coach believes we are way better than what our record says. I believe that once the MAAC tournament comes around, we’re going to start playing very well.”
Despite the tough times for Whitfield and his team, they are still hopeful of bringing a MAAC championship to Poughkeepsie for the first time in the school’s history.
“The one goal that I can say for our entire team is that we want to cut down that net,” he says. “We have the great leadership, we have the great players, and we have the great coaching staff to help us go do it. If that’s what my team wants to do, then I’ll ride it out and give my all in order to achieve that goal.”
As graduation approaches, Whitfield is staring down a future that for the first time does not include “basketball player” as his title. But he is already entertaining new dreams for life after graduation, dreams that still include the sport that will forever be a part of his identity.
“There’s always basketball in the future, it’s just sometimes it won’t be on the competitive level,” he says. “My goals right now: I’m looking to get my master’s, I’m a business major now, and hopefully in the future I can pursue one of my goals in becoming a sports agent.”
Barring a Cinderella run through the MAAC Tournament, Whitfield will have played out his entire career in anonymity, with almost nothing tangible — highlights, wins, or statistics — to show for it. But he is forever grateful for his four years as a member of the Red Foxes, which he says will be with him for the rest of his life.
“One of my main goals in college was to get better, to progress every year, and I’ve done that,” he says. “Not only on the court, but also in the classroom, through my personal life I’ve grown,” he says. “The four years I’ve been at Marist have been the best four years I’ve committed to any school, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.”
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. – Mike Maker spoke slowly, recounting Marist’s 67-54 loss to Manhattan Monday night in his opening statement to media.
He said he was disappointed. He credited Manhattan’s adjustments. He bemoaned his team’s woeful shooting clips of 34.5 percent from the field, 19 percent from deep and 54.5 percent from the line.
All the while, he sat hunched over his microphone, looking as worn down as his Red Foxes had against Manhattan’s harassing half-court defense in the second half.
And, really, who could blame Maker?
Marist is 5-23 overall and 4-14 in the MAAC in Maker’s first year as a Division I head coach. He was dealt a tough hand when Khallid Hart and T.J. Curry, the starting backcourt, sustained injuries early in the season and played three combined games before mid-January. And though the Red Foxes won four in a row shortly after Hart and Curry returned to the lineup, the loss to Manhattan was the team’s fifth straight.
Yet after glumly crediting Steve Masiello and Manhattan for the night’s result, Maker tapped the table with his right hand and, with an upbeat undertone, said: “Call me crazy. I still think we have a shot.”
Marist’s chances are more favorable than Lloyd Christmas’ one-in-a-million, but, on the surface, the odds are stacked against a surprise run.
The Red Foxes cannot finish higher than ninth. They’re locked into a Friday night bout in Albany next week, meaning they would need four wins in four days to cut down the nets at the MAAC tournament, and just about every team in the conference has beaten them at least once.
But since Curry and Hart returned, Marist is 4-8. Four of the losses — to Quinnipiac, Siena, Monmouth and regular-season champ Iona — had combined margins of 11 points. Even Monday night, the Red Foxes led Manhattan with 12 minutes left.
“We showed it throughout the season when all our guys were healthy,” Chavaughn Lewis said. “We showed what we’re capable of.”
The 72-68 loss to Iona last Friday, in particular, stands out in Maker’s memory as reason to think his team could beat anyone. The Red Foxes had their opportunities in the final minute, despite shooting 26.9 percent from deep and 63 percent from the line.
“The other day against Iona, I thought we outplayed them,” Maker said. “We didn’t shoot well, but I thought we outplayed them. I really do.”
Marist has two more games — versus Saint Peter’s and at Rider — before a loss would end the season, and Maker said he hopes the Red Foxes can sustain for 40 minutes the level of play they employed for two-thirds of the Manhattan game.
“I thought Marist came out and really played well,” Masiello said. “I think coach is doing a great job of getting his system in. I don’t know if he really has the guys for his system yet, but you could tell how good they’re going to be.”
“We’re getting better,” Maker said. “We didn’t take a step back [against Manhattan], but we certainly didn’t take a step forward, and I thought we took a major step, maybe a couple, against Iona, even though we lost… I say this a lot: I still believe in the product we have and the players we have.”
Maker spent about 35 minutes in the locker room with his team Monday night before taking Lewis and Hart into the presser. He shared all the above sentiments with his players — the disappointment but also the optimism.
“What I take from all of it is just to have a positive mindset and continue pushing and not let the circumstances break us,” Lewis said. “So far I feel like it’s gotten through to our players, but I don’t think we understand it fully yet. [Maker] just instills a lot of confidence in us and just hopes eventually, hopefully not too late, that we just believe and have the same passion for the game that he has.”
“If we do that,” Hart said, “we could make a run in Albany.”
Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter for more on the MAAC.
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y – Steve Masiello looked to his left moments after Manhattan beat Marist, 67-54, Monday night, and asked Jermaine Lawrence a question.
“You haven’t been too happy with me the last couple of weeks, have you?” he asked.
Lawrence flashed a smile, shook his head and answered bluntly: “No.”
Masiello has demanded a lot from his 6-foot-10 sophomore forward. In recent weeks, he has instructed Lawrence to hold himself accountable — a tall order for a former top-30 recruit who had been told all his life just how talented he was. Masiello said Lawrence’s growth in that regard was the key factor behind a 19-point, six-rebound performance at the McCann Center.
“I think the light has now gone off,” Masiello said. “I think two weeks ago, three weeks ago, you’d say something to him and he’d say, ‘I believe you, but this happened.’ Now he’s saying, ‘I got you, I’m going to do it,’ no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Lawrence looked confident, unlike the tentative offensive player he had been for much of the season. He sank a pair of jumpers, soared for an alley-oop and threw a shot fake to beat his man off the dribble for a dunk. By halftime, he had passed his previous career-high of 11 points by a field goal.
“It was pretty good,” Lawrence said. “I just let the game come to me, didn’t want to force anything, just move without the ball and pick my spots.”
Masiello had predicted Lawrence would need time to acclimate to Manhattan’s system, and a foot injury early in the season protracted that process. The Jaspers struggled to a 2-7 record, as Emmy Andujar and Shane Richards were the only two offensive threats. Then they won three of four, and Ashton Pankey broke out for 18 points in a Jan. 7 win over Saint Peter’s, prompting Masiello to say: “The key for our offense to continue to grow is AP and then Jermaine Lawrence. Now we’re starting to get AP going, and next will be Jermaine.”
With the trio of Andujar, Pankey and Richards producing consistently, Manhattan (15-12, 12-6) has won 13 of its last 18 games. They have carried the Jaspers, but Manhattan has lacked a reliable fourth scorer who can boost the offense when one or more of the big three is limited. Monday night, Andujar, Pankey and Richards combined for four points in the first half — Richards did not return to the game, and Masiello said his status is day-to-day with a knee injury — yet the Jaspers trailed Marist by a slim 31-27 margin because of Lawrence’s 13 points and five rebounds.
“I don’t think we would have won this game [Monday] without Jermaine, for real,” said Andujar, who scored all 13 of his points after the break.
“We get [Lawrence] going with AP, Emmy and Shane, we’ve got a chance,” Masiello said. “So hopefully we can continue it and just keep playing good team basketball.”
While Lawrence’s 19 points set a career-high, his six rebounds were a season-high. Remember, Masiello pulled Lawrence from the Jaspers’ exhibition win over LIU Post because the forward was not attacking the boards.
“It’s a difference maker,” Masiello said. “Ironically, the difference on the glass tonight was six.”
Perhaps the moment that exemplified Lawrence’s confidence the most came in the first half, when he leaked baseline and signaled for an alley-oop. Rashawn Stores didn’t throw a pass towards the rim, but Lawrence jumped anyway, like he needed the ball.
“He’s finally getting that lion in him, and you’re seeing it because he can’t take it out on me,” Masiello said. “He knows that wouldn’t be good, so he’s taking it out on the other team. That’s what I like to see.”
Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter for more on the MAAC.
Ladies and Gentlemen, your OBW MAAC Power Rankings v14.
1. Iona (23-6, 16-2)
Previous ranking: 1
Results: W 72-68 at Marist, W 69-68 vs. Monmouth
This week: Friday vs. Manhattan; Sunday at Saint Peter’s
The Gaels put together a pair of comeback victories last week to clinch the MAAC’s regular season title.
A.J. English hit the winner against Monmouth, faking Max DiLeo into the air and finishing an elbow jumper, plus the foul. English has thrived in the big moment this year. His 3-pointer against Manhattan was the winner, and he also sank two pressure free throws with two seconds left to give Iona a one-point win at Niagara. Don’t forget, his pass to Kelvin Amayo with less than a second left forced overtime in Iona’s win over Saint Peter’s on Jan. 31.
Those late-game heroics could help him take Player of the Year next week.
2. Rider (19-10, 13-5)
Previous ranking: 2
Results: W 94-83 vs. Quinnipiac; L 65-61 vs. Niagara
This week: Thursday at Monmouth; Sunday vs. Marist
But without Lopez, Rider struggled at home against Niagara and ultimately dropped a close game.
Especially because it looks like Lopez will return, Rider does not fall in this week’s rankings.
3. Monmouth (16-13, 12-6)
Previous ranking: 4
Results: W 69-65 vs. Marist; W 63-58 at Saint Peter’s; L 69-68 at Iona
This week: Thursday vs. Rider; Sunday vs. Siena
To be clear, Monmouth doesn’t jump to No. 3 because of anything Manhattan did (more on the Jaspers in a bit). The Hawks just showed that their Dec. 7 win over Iona was no fluke, as they took a 16-point lead over the Gaels on the road Sunday and didn’t fold after their hosts hit their inevitable hot streak.
Justin Robinson was fantastic, and earned praise from Iona’s Player of the Year candidates.
4. Manhattan (14-12, 11-6)
Previous ranking: 3
Results: W 80-74 at Siena
This week: Today at Marist; Friday at Iona; Sunday vs. Quinnipiac
Again, Manhattan did nothing to fall to No. 4, and the Jaspers have their own close call against Iona. Monmouth just did enough to rise to No. 3.
The Jaspers finally won at Siena, something they hadn’t done since 2006, and Rashawn Stores stepped up in a big way. The senior point guard, who has a knack for hitting big shots, had 15 points, three assists and zero turnovers and knocked down a few clutch 3-pointers. That performance ranks right up with his nine-point, nine-assist, one-turnover outing in Manhattan’s win at Monmouth on Feb. 1.
The Jaspers can clinch a top-four seed with a win at Marist tonight. They still have an outside chance at the No. 2 seed, if they win out and Rider loses out. Manhattan holds the tiebreaker over Monmouth, thanks to a season sweep.
5. Canisius (15-12, 10-8)
Previous ranking: 6
Results: W 69-63 OT at Siena; W 63-63 at Quinnipiac
This week: Tuesday vs. Niagara; Friday vs. Fairfield
Canisius locked up a top-five seed with yesterday’s win at Quinnipiac, and the Golden Griffins have to like their chances of finishing 12-8. Even if they don’t catch Manhattan — they can’t catch Monmouth, which swept the season series — they could carry a five-game winning streak into the MAAC tournament.
6. Quinnipiac (14-13, 8-10)
Previous ranking: 5
Results: L 94-83 at Rider; L 65-63 vs. Canisius
This week: Friday vs. Siena; Sunday at Manhattan
The Bobcats are one of a few teams on a three-game slide, but all three losses were to top five teams: Iona, Rider and Canisius. At least their three-game winning streak that preceded the skid isn’t too far in the past.
Quinnipiac can finish no higher than sixth, their current seed, and as low as eighth.
7. Saint Peter’s (13-16, 7-11)
Previous ranking: 7
Results: L 63-58 vs. Monmouth; L 57-43 at Fairfield
This week: Friday at Marist; Sunday vs. Iona
The Peacocks seemed to be clicking, like they did late last season. They hung with Rider, nearly beat Iona and reeled off three straight wins against Fairfield, Siena and Niagara.
Since then, they have lost three straight, the latest a damning 57-43 setback at Fairfield.
Saint Peter’s can finish anywhere between sixth and ninth.
8. Siena (10-17, 7-11)
Previous ranking: 8
Results: L 69-63 OT vs. Canisius; L 80-74 vs. Manhattan
This week: Friday at Quinnipiac; Sunday at Monmouth
Siena has hung close with a number of the MAAC’s top teams. The Canisius and Manhattan games are the most recent examples. But the Saints’ only win over a top-five team came on Feb. 2 against Rider.
They’ve lost three straight and seven of nine.
Siena can finish anywhere between sixth and ninth.
9. Marist (5-22, 4-13)
Previous ranking: 9
Results: L 69-65 at Monmouth; L 72-68 vs. Iona
This week: Today vs. Manhattan; Friday vs. Saint Peter’s; Sunday at Rider
Marist has lost four straight since winning four in a row. The last three losses, however, were by 10 total points to Siena, Monmouth and Iona.
Marist can finish anywhere between eighth and last.
10. Niagara (6-21, 5-13)
Previous ranking: t-10
Results: W 55-53 at Fairfield; W 65-61 at Rider
This week: Tuesday at Canisius; Sunday vs. Fairfield
Does it matter that two of Niagara’s five conference wins came against teams missing a key player? The Purple Eagles beat Desi Washington-less Saint Peter’s in November and Matt Lopez-less Rider Sunday.
Wins are wins, and though Fairfield finally won again, too, Niagara breaks the power rankings tie with its win over the Stags.
11. Fairfield (7-21, 5-13)
Previous ranking: t-10
Results: L 55-53 vs. Niagara; W 57-43 vs. Saint Peter’s
This week: Friday at Canisius; Sunday at Niagara
Fairfield snapped a 10-game skid with the win over Saint Peter’s. The Stags were 2-0 in MAAC play with wins over Manhattan and Quinnipiac. Now they’re just a few games from the end of a dreadful season.
Player of the Week
David Laury, Sr., F, Iona
Laury was dominant while battling foul trouble in Iona’s comeback win at Marist, posting 21 points and 18 boards. He averaged 22.5 points and 10.5 rebounds for the week.
Rookie of the Week
Tyler Nelson, G, Fairfield
Nelson averaged 19.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and a steal in Fairfield’s two games. He poured in a career-high 26 points in the Stags’ win over Saint Peter’s.