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Iona, Manhattan and the top of the MAAC able to make noise in NCAAs

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
C (USATSI)
Steve Masiello's Jaspers are one of four teams with realistic hopes of winning the stacked MAAC. (USATSI)

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NEW YORK -- Perched above the roadway arteries that connect the Bronx to Manhattan and all routes north, Manhattan College's Draddy Gymnasium is one of the more curiously located hoops barns in D-I.

The school sits on a congested but beautiful hill in the northern Bronx, ensconced in an urban forest, its location adjacent to the final/first stop for the South Ferry/Van Cortlandt Park 1 train. It's where college life collides with the crunch of the outer banks of the big city. Subway cars go to sleep here, nestled against the rough, 40-foot rock edges that define the school's south-facing perimeter.

Draddy, built in 1979, is the unique home to Jaspers hoops. The place, which has a capacity of 2,520, hosts indoor track and field events, in addition to volleyball and, of course, basketball. You walk in and get the open-air impression of an airplane hangar that also happens to be hosting a hoops game. It is unlike any other barn in college hoops, and it's terrific. This it the everlasting charm of small-time college basketball.

Manhattan plays in the MAAC, which is now set up for one of the best league tournaments in college hoops. Four teams -- Iona, Manhattan, Canisius and Quinnipiac -- all have a very good chance of winning the automatic bid. The schools have combined to go 60-20 in league play, the MAAC now proving to be top-half good in college hoops' conference gradation; it rates 15th in KenPom and 16th in RPI.

The 84th meeting in Iona-Manhattan history, a rivalry that dates back to the 1946-47 season, took place Friday night, the final day of February. This was a special season in that it allowed two local teams to play each other under the backdrop of a respected and prideful rivalry, Manhattan chasing a No. 2 spot in the league, so it wouldn't have to face Iona (which previously locked up No. 1 in the MAAC bracket) again until the league title game.

"I feel like I'm 62 right now," Jaspers coach Steve Masiello said afer the game. "It's very stressful, it's very tense, but it's fun."

This was among the most passionate and invigorating college hoops environments anyone could place themselves in all season. The beauty, and irony, is that the atmosphere -- the heat -- inside Draddy was beyond anything the NCAA tournament's first weekend can provide in its exciting-but-sterile environments.

"It's one of the better rivalries in college basketball, regardless of level," Masiello said. "Tim (Cluess, Iona coach) has done a remarkable job, because they win and they stay classy. Today a lot of people don't do that. Sean Armand is one of the classiest men I've ever gone against. I think that's what makes this rivalry so special."

Manhattan's student section, The 6th Borough, featured fellas dressed as leprechauns, the Green Lantern, and a banana -- among other unidentifiable costumes. Iona, just nine miles northeast, had its own cadre make the trip and sit in stands opposite of the rambunctious Borough. Around the edges of the pull-out bleachers, standing-room-only spectators dotted the open space, creating a human wall while watching the game. The size of the gym, the exchange of taunts between students, the low ceiling -- including a scoreboard that looks like a massive Kelly-green LEGO piece, one of those old Daktronics boards that were stapled to the top of many a gymnasium/arena in the '70 and '80s -- calls to mind a high school game, what with it taking place on a Friday night.

But it was obviously beyond a high school game on the court. It's the latest showing that this year's MAAC is solid and inevitably will produce an NCAA tournament team capable of winning a game once the grand event begins.

Manhattan needed overtime, but it won 80-77 to improve to 21-7. By beating Canisius at home less than 48 hours later on Sunday night, the Jaspers reached 22 wins, their most in a decade -- also the last time this program reached the NCAA tournament (2004).

"What's better tonight than the Emmy story?" Masiello said. "New York City kid who made the game-winning plays. ... Emmy blocked that shot because he didn't want to hear about it all summer in the playgrounds in the neighborhoods."

Emmy Andujar, a 6-foot-6 junior, swatted away the potential winning shot, allowing the game to go to overtime. He accounted for every point -- by scoring it himself or dialing an assist -- in overtime and finished with 28 points and six rebounds.

Masiello, who must walk about four miles every game with all the pacing he does between scorers' table and Gatorade tub, said the league's incredible right now. He was passionate and defensive -- in a positive way -- in stumping for how solid the four clubs at the top are. This is a coach who played at Kentucky during the '90s and served as an assistant for Pitino at Louisville from 2005-2011, before taking the Manhattan gig.

"Iona's a very dangerous team, and it says how good this league is," Masiello said. "Iona is the defending league champ. It's been fun, and I blame you guys [the media] a lot. Iona is one of the best offensive teams in the country. Quinnipiac is one of the best rebounding teams in the country. Manhattan, we're one of the best defensive teams. Why is it a one bid league? You mean to tell me all these teams aren't going to give a five seed or a four seed heck of a night? I think because you get labeled 'they're in the MAAC.' These guys, across the board, could play at a very high level. I haven't seen the top this good in a while, even going back to my days as an assistant."

The league's proven to be one of the better mid-major unions this season, boasting guys like Billy Baron at Canisius -- a possible pro prospect -- in addition to Iona's typical, fantastic, fast-paced offense. But it was the defense that Gaels coach Tim Cluess wasn't happy with, not at all.

"We didn't care enough about playing good defense." Cluess said. "When you win a lot, people take for granted how hard it is ton win, especially young players. And they think they can just show up."

Manhattan won in part because of the play of big man Rhamel Brown, of whom Masiello said, "You can count on him. He should be an insurance company."

When smaller leagues are in need of a boost, they need the best teams to play each other, do it on national television, and have the game be close and in doubt until the final seconds. Iona-Manhattan achieved that in spades.

"This isn't a one-bid league this year," Masiello said, beating home the message. "This is not a one-bid league."

Well, fair or not, it will be just that. Only twice in league history (including Iona in 2012) has the MAAC nabbed an at-large. But that doesn't mean it'll be a one-NCAA-tournament-game league. The top of the conference is ready for the MAAC tourney to begin on Thursday, and from there, notice will be served again.

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