This should be the MAAC’s best rivalry. Iona and Manhattan are separated by less than 10 miles and both schools have proud basketball tradition. But for any rivalry to thrive there needs to be competitive balance and meaningful stakes. Historically, this match-up has had both: heading into Saturday’s game Iona led the all-time series 42-36; since 2000 they have combined for five MAAC Tournament titles. But not since 2006 have both schools even finished above .500 in the conference.
Consider that just one year ago, Manhattan entered its home contest against Iona with a 5-21 record. It was Senior Night for the Jaspers, yet only 1,000 fans, at most, showed up at Draddy Gymnasium. Iona, near the top of the MAAC, embarrassed the home team 102-65.
On Saturday night, there was a new head coach on the Manhattan sidelines (Steve Masiello) and a new energy in Riverdale. A raucous, sell-out crowd (listed at 2,345, but with plenty of fans standing it was probably more) showed up for the most anticipated Manhattan basketball game in a few years. Tied with Manhattan and Loyola for first in the conference coming in, Iona won 85-73 to split the regular season series with the Jaspers.
“This was a great environment for New York basketball,” Iona’s second-year head coach Tim Cluess said. “A couple years ago when there were a lot of changes going on with the New York coaches, we were all talking about, ‘What’s it going to be like when all these schools get good again?’ We are getting to see. We’re going back 20 years to when the games were like this all the time and the gyms were packed.
“[Masiello’s] done a terrific job. He’s re-energized the program. I remember watching this rivalry as a kid. I came on the court tonight and was smiling like the players. My whole coaching staff wanted to go out and play. We were trying to figure out if we played their coaching staff who would be guarding who. This is what New York basketball is supposed to be about.”
Cluess said everyone was calling about tickets for this game, and although he wouldn’t let his team discuss Manhattan until last Thursday’s game against Canisius had ended, he conceded the “buzz has been building for a while.”
Much of that credit goes to Masiello, who was an assistant at Manhattan from 2001-2005. During his four seasons, the Jaspers made the NCAA Tournament twice and the NIT once. He spent the last six years as an assistant at Louisville under Rick Pitino. Masiello replaced Barry Rohrssen, who did everything but win enough games and was fired after last season’s 6-25 record.
Masiello deflected the praise when talking about the environment at Draddy. “I give the Manhattan fans, the students, the alumni, and the administration a ton of credit. I am so proud of the job they’ve done to get Manhattan basketball back to this. As devastated as I am about the loss, I am as happy about the environment. I hope it continues.”
Perhaps progress was inevitable even without a coaching change. Manhattan didn’t lose too much personnel from last year; this year, three freshman and a senior who missed last season play significant minutes. With the exception of one or two schools, no MAAC team looks better this season than last, so an improvement on its three conference wins was expected.
Even so, not too many predicted such a drastic turnaround so quickly. The Jaspers were picked eighth (out of 10) in the MAAC in the preseason coaches’ poll. And yet, Manhattan is 10-3 in conference, one game back of the leaders, and 17-8 overall. Rohrssen’s team was eighth in the league in field goal percentage defense last season; most of the same players are leading the MAAC in that category this season. Defense, for the most, is about effort.
Against the league’s best, Manhattan held its own. The first meeting saw Iona blow a 17-point with 7:58 left. Manhattan won on a three-pointer at the buzzer. Saturday provided a similar situation, as Iona led by 18 at the under-8 media timeout. “Did we grow up or didn’t we?” Cluess asked his players in the huddle. They passed the test, not letting Manhattan get closer than nine.
Masiello’s squad has rejuvenated the fan base, which was rowdy (and at times profane) from the opening tip on Saturday, though the energy may have hurt the Jaspers against Iona. Said Gaels forward Mike Glover, who had 19 points and seven rebounds: “I don’t want to say certain words the crowd was saying. But you were there, you heard it. It motivated us to play much harder.” MoMo Jones, who scored 18, felt the same way. “There are a lot of people in the crowd against us—it’s just the 12 of us plus our coaches. It makes us want to play even better than we were playing. We fed off the crowd energy even more than Manhattan did.”
As the saying goes, no fan has ever made a basket or grabbed a rebound. Manhattan came out with great energy to start the game, but went through a dry period in the second half when Iona shut down George Beamon, who scored 19 of his 26 in the first half. Iona was certainly motivated, but it was its execution that won the game.
One thing is for sure: the MAAC’s best rivalry is once again Iona and Manhattan. Will we see Round Three in the MAAC Tournament? “I definitely want to see them again,” Beamon said. His coach interjected: “I don’t. I’ve had enough.”