While Iona was the heavy favorite to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), it was their heated rivals—the Manhattan Jaspers—who walked away winners in the MAAC championship, downing the Gaels, 79-69 on Monday night.
Granted Iona stood tall all year in the MAAC, Manhattan seized the opportunity and will now be dancing in back-to-back years after coming up clutch when it mattered most.
The Jaspers enter the NCAA Tournament at 19-13 after finishing tied for third place in the MAAC with a 13-7 record. They boast a KenPom RPI of 141 and are likely looking at a 15 or 16 seed. Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com has the Jaspers getting a 16 seed and being part of the first four games in Dayton in his latest bracketology.
Led by a resilient coach in Steve Masiello, this is a Jaspers team that is finally hitting its stride after some early struggles. Manhattan is by no means chopped liver, and they could give a top team a good fight. The Jaspers have won seven out of their last eight (only losing at Iona). Plus, you have to remember that this is a team that got out to a 2-7 start in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
The Jaspers certainly have some capable players on the roster to work with, too.
Led by versatile forward Emmy Andujar, the Jaspers have a great go-to-player to rely on. Andujar leads the team in scoring (16.5 ppg), rebounding (7.6 rpg) and assists (3.5 apg) and is as good at attacking the paint as he is shooting from the perimeter. He was front and center in the championship game, scoring 18 points, grabbing a team-high 11 rebounds and contributing four assists.
Manhattan also gets good production from Maryland transfer Ashton Pankey, who adds some bulk in the paint while averaging 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Pankey was also a beast in the title game against Iona, putting up a double-double (21 points and 10 rebounds) while chipping in three assists and two blocks.
The Jaspers also get good guard play from 6’5” junior guard/forward Shane Richards, as he chips in 13.1 points, 3.6 rebounds while shooting .386 from three-point range. RaShawn Stores, a 5’11 senior guard, contributes 6.3 points and 3.0 assists per game while shooting a team-high .419 percent from three-point territory.
While most low to mid-major programs are usually not that athletic, that is not the case with these Jaspers. They can get up and down the court, and they carry a lot of that New York “swagger.” So, this is a confident bunch that carries the same resiliency as its coach.
With Manhattan gelling at the most opportune time, you can’t take this team lightly. Like they say, it’s not how you start but rather how you finish, and Masiello has his team playing its best basketball when it matters most. As such, don’t sleep on this team next week.