Steve Masiello has the good fortune of getting to make his NCAA Tournament debut as his team has matured into a strong and experienced squad – and gets stuck facing his mentor Rick Pitino and a defending champion Louisville squad that was horribly under-seeded on the four line.
Masiello played for Pitino as a freshman and was one of his assistants for six years. The upside of that is Masiello may well be very intimately familiar with the way the Cardinals go about their business. The downside is that it likely won’t matter because Louisville is a very talented team that returns six players from last season’s championship.
The Jaspers are not without talent, specifically in the form of their own senior trio, George Beamon, Rhamel Brown and Michael Alvarado. Beamon is the team’s leading scorer and can do it all – rebound, shoot from distance, get in the lane and to the line, distribute and rebound. He is accompanied by Alvarado, who has been slowed late in the season by injuries to both his ankle and his nose but is the offensive glue, as well as Brown, who has had at least four blocks in half of Manhattan’s games ad has even come within a block or two of a triple-double three times.
The problem is that Brown’s (or Ashton Pankey's) size plays well against the likes of the Metro-Atlantic, but he would be the fifth biggest player on Pitino’s squad. The Jaspers have played numerous close games this season without really playing anyone even close to the caliber of this Cardinals team. Their defense and athleticism make anything possible, but the scale is not in their favor. Luke Hancock, Russ Smith, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear all return from last season's epic success, which is enough to make the best teams in this tournament worried, let alone Manhattan.
How Louisville Can Win
Pretty much by being themselves and not beating themselves. It should be no surprise given that Masiello is a Pitino disciple, but the Cardinals do everything the Jaspers do, but better. They force turnovers (21st nationally) and get out in transition, at which they are nigh unstoppable. They have not just guys who are experienced at playing together like Manhattan, but guys who just won the whole damn thing last year. If they can stay hot, keep Harrell out of foul trouble, and don't get sloppy with their execution on either end, this should be an easy game for them. Their lone glaring weakness is depth on the post, and it's not a weakness that Manhattan is really capable of exploiting.
How Manhattan Can Win
One possibility, if they can hang, is their defense. They are known for generating turnovers (16th nationally), to the point that they don’t mind flirting with foul trouble to get aggressive and turn over their opponent. They also are great at getting to the line (2nd nationally) to make their opponents pay for all that action. This can work in their favor if they play a team that can’t make them pay for the defensive smother, and Louisville is atrocious from the free throw line (.659). If they can find a way to win the turnover battle and avoid a dose of their own medicine (Louisville’s defense is just as good if not better), they just might find a way for one more close victory in Beamon’s final season.
Who Will Win
Louisville, in one of those remember-the-first-half-when-this-was-close type games. This is just about the worst matchup Manhattan could get, facing an opponent who knows all your tricks (because their coach taught your coach), and who does just about everything you do better than you. I have every reason to believe that they will keep the game interesting longer than many of the seeds lower than them, but Louisville will pull away long before the final horn in a 78-62 victory.
Manhattan vs Louisville
Where: Orlando, Florida
Time: 9:50 p.m. Eastern, Thursday