Sunday, March 16
Selection show party — 6:41 p.m.
Café 1853, Manhattan College, Bronx, New York
It starts with two words on a screen. The Manhattan Jaspers are sitting with their coaches and their parents and their cheerleaders and their friends, watching a bracket take shape on a television.
Greg Gumbel says the first word: Louisville. The Cardinals are a 4-seed, playing Thursday in Orlando. In the chairs set up before the TV, the Manhattan players start to grab each other’s arms. They rock back and forth. They’ve seen the projections. They know 4-seeds play 13-seeds, and according to the bracketologists, a 13-seed will be their fate. They call out: Here it comes!
Gumbel says the second word: Manhattan. The room erupts. Emmy Andujar stands and pumps his fist. RaShawn Stores leaps from his seat and starts hopping and clapping his hands. The band plays. The cheerleaders scream. And the players crowd around Steve Masiello, their coach and the man who turned their program around. But Masiello is not standing or cheering. Instead he remains seated, his palm on his temple, eyes focused on the ground.
For a moment, Masiello says nothing. This is not what he wanted. Not Louisville. Anyone but Louisville. Masiello forces a grin — just a small one — and he closes his eyes and shakes his head.
Coaches’ film study — 7:46 p.m.
Manhattan College Physical Education Classroom
“I can’t believe this,” Masiello says. “I cannot believe we are playing them.”
He can’t believe it because Louisville has no business being a 4-seed. The Cardinals are the defending national champions, regular-season and tournament champs of the American Athletic Conference, winners of 16 of their last 18 games, and widely considered a contender to win it all.
But it’s not just that Louisville is a 4-seed that gets to Masiello. It’s that Louisville is this 4-seed, the one traveling to Orlando to play Manhattan. This means Masiello will step to the sideline for his first-ever NCAA tournament game as a head coach, and he will stand opposite Rick Pitino. For many coaches this would be daunting. For Masiello, 36, it could be overwhelming. As a 12-year-old, he was a ball boy for Pitino’s New York Knicks. When it came time for Masiello to choose a college, he walked on for Pitino at Kentucky. There was little playing time, but while he was there Masiello served as something of a “coaching apprentice.” He studied Pitino’s methods, asked how and why Pitino made the decisions he made, and learned to think like a coach. After stints as a graduate assistant at Tulane and as an assistant coach at Manhattan, Masiello joined Pitino’s staff at Louisville. “He taught me everything I know,” Masiello would say of Pitino, over and over again.
And now, with the lights off in an overheated classroom on a mid-March Sunday night, Masiello sits perched on a stool, staring at a projection screen, wondering how he can get his team to beat Pitino’s. Typically, Manhattan’s advantage comes from taking teams by surprise. The Jaspers press full-court for 40 minutes. They run. They rotate 10 players. They’re not afraid to bleed, and they’re even less afraid to foul. They’re a mid-major version of Louisville. “Everything we do, they do,” Masiello told reporters just moments ago. “They are the bigger, better version of us. They are us on steroids.”
So now he sits on the stool and he says it again: “I just can’t believe this. Out of all the teams we could play, we play them. I can’t believe it.”
But soon the film starts rolling, and Masiello begins to settle down. He looks at the screen and at his stat sheet, and he starts rattling off ideas. “They hit 8.1 3s a game. That’s all Luke [Hancock] and Russ [Smith].” … “We gotta go at them inside. They can’t guard us inside.” … “Whatever side Trez [Montrezl Harrell] is on, we cannot throw entry passes. He’ll jump the passing lanes. We have to make a huge deal of that.”
And then, after a deep breath, one more time: “This is unbelievable, man. This is really unbelievable that we’re playing them.”
He turns back to the screen. He goes back and forth with his assistants, predicting who will guard whom, wondering if certain players will get into foul trouble and if others will start to play out of control. “They’re so good on the ball, they throw off everything you want to do,” he says. “You initiate your offense higher. You’re slower with your deliveries. You just never get comfortable.”
“Pause the tape,” he says a moment later. He’s starting to process the bigger picture. “Honestly, I think our only chance here is that we have to be just so aggressive that it’s insane. When I say go after them, I mean go after them like no one else ever has.”
The video resumes. Seconds later, Masiello asks to stop it again. He looks up from his seat, back to lead assistant Matt Grady, who’s sitting in the back row. “How’s their depth?”
“Last game they played nine guys,” Grady says. “But [Tim] Henderson only played one minute, so really only eight guys.”
Manhattan substitutes more liberally than almost any team in the country. Ten players average between 10 and 31 minutes per game. An eight-man rotation? The Jaspers can handle that. They might even be able to exploit it.
Masiello nods. The jitters are starting to subside. This doesn’t have to be about Masiello and his mentor. He doesn’t have to outwit a mastermind. He just has to coach a basketball game — figure out matchups and player management and search for the Jaspers’ competitive advantage. Masiello takes a deep breath.
“Play it,” he says. Then, almost two hours after the bracket was announced, the shock seems to finally fade. “We’re going to win this game.”
Film room — 9:02 p.m.
After the coaches have taken their time to prepare, the players file into the classroom. Up on the whiteboard, Masiello has written some key points and stats.
- #1 Rebounding in USA
- #1 3-point shooting in USA
- #2 offense in USA
- #4 FG pct in USA
- #2 leading scorer
He points at the board. “Who do you think this is?” The players say nothing. Typically, they respond quickly when Masiello talks, but not now. He asks again: “Who is this?”
“I’ll tell you who it is,” he continues. “The first one is Quinnipiac. Second, that’s Iona. Third, also Iona. Fourth, also Iona. And the fifth one is Billy Baron from Canisius. Now, you swept Canisius, you just beat Quinnipiac in the MAAC tournament, and you won two out of three over Iona.”1
He pauses, scans the room, and points back at the board. “That ain’t Louisville,” he says. “Understand what I just said. That ain’t Louisville. Louisville is very good at what they do if you let them do it, but you know what? So are these teams. But we don’t let them do what they want to do. Welcome to the NCAA tournament. Let me introduce you to Manhattan, the team that absolutely ruins whatever it is that you want to do.”
He starts going through Louisville’s personnel, breaking down their players’ strengths and weaknesses. Masiello is already on a first-name basis with most of the guys on Louisville’s roster. He has known the Cardinals’ best player, Russ Smith, since Smith was in seventh grade. He recruited Smith to Louisville, and when Masiello left for Manhattan, Smith, a New Yorker, almost came with him. He knows this team — both its schemes and its personnel — and hours after learning the Jaspers would play the Cardinals, he shows that he already knows exactly what Louisville intends to do.
Just before he switches from the scouting report to the film, Masiello looks at his players. “They’re going to try to punch you in the face,” he says. “Well, we’re going to throw a haymaker at them. No one’s ever done that. We are going to press them the whole night, like nothing they’ve ever seen. They will hate it. OK? They will be miserable.”
After they finish watching film, he returns to his point. “They are very good,” he says. “And you know how much respect I have for them. But I’m really not sure if they can take a punch. And we’re going to find out.”
Monday, March 17
Practice — 11:08 a.m.
Draddy Gymnasium, Bronx
While his team stretches, Masiello approaches me on the sideline and explains how he built this program. It is, he stresses again, almost a carbon copy of Louisville. Same press, same offensive sets, same conditioning workouts, same everything. But one difference, he says, is that Manhattan has taken on the identity of the city it calls home. Of the 13 players on the roster, eight are from the five boroughs. Another, leading scorer George Beamon, is from Long Island, and yet another, freshman center Carlton Allen, is from just across the Hudson in New Jersey.
“In New York,” says Masiello, “there are always a few kids who get a ton of exposure. But there are just so many players here that a lot are going to fall through the cracks. So we can get those kids. And when they get here, not only do we have New York City kids, so they’re already tough, but we have New York City kids who got overlooked and have a chip on their shoulder.”
When he recruits, Masiello looks for length and toughness. Everything else he can teach. In his first year at Manhattan he took a team that had gone 6-25 the previous season and led it to 21 wins. After an injury-plagued 2012-13, he now has the Jaspers in the tournament for the first time in a decade.
Out on the court, he starts going through his talking points for the week.
“What do we want when Russ Smith has the ball?” he asks.
“Ten eyes!” the players yell.
“Yes,” Masiello says. “Ten eyes on Russ Smith. Track him everywhere. No one loses sight.”
He continues: “The game is going to be won and lost from 3-point line to 3-point line. That’s where they are so good. — 42 percent of the turnovers they force come here. If you’re napping here, it’s over. The game is won or lost right here. Our defense is too good in the half-court, and our offense is too good on the other end. This is their only chance.”
He runs the team through press-break drills. On inbounds plays he directs his players to run hard and direct to the ball. Flash and attack, he says over and again. Flash and attack. When sophomore shooter Shane Richards hesitates on a press-break drill, Masiello loses it. “Come to the ball!” he shouts. “Don’t act like you want the ball! Want it!” He stops and shakes his head. “I am sick and tired of seeing New York City kids not want the ball!”
So inbounding the ball is Step 1. Ripping it low across the body to initiate the dribble is Step 2. Step 3? Making sure everyone but the ball handler gets out of the damn way. “Once you get the ball,” he says to combo guard RaShawn Stores, “you are screaming, ‘Clear out! Clear out!’ You aren’t waiting for the trap. You’re going upcourt one-on-one. You can take them. You’re New York City. They’re the suburbs.”
He laughs at himself, enjoying it now. “Hey,” he calls out. “It is March 17, and you guys are playing for a shot at a national championship.” He lets that linger for a few seconds, and then he tells them to run the press break again.
Tuesday, March 18
Practice — 7:21 p.m.
Edgewater High School, Orlando, Florida
They’re here. The charter flight — the only one they’ve taken all season — touched down this afternoon, and after checking in at their hotel they came straight to the gym. After stretching, the players circle around Masiello. “This is the most important game of your life,” he says. “But in this game” — he puts his hands out in front of them, palms facing, inches from each other — “you cannot even show this much fear. You cannot show fear.
“You are dealing with a bully,” he continues. “But it’s a bully who never gets hit. You can’t show for even one second that the game is not going exactly how you want it to go.
“You have to play through mistakes. It’s going to be a game of mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes. If you go the wrong way, you meant to do that. When they score, you wanted them to score. Everything is on your terms. Everything. This is a bully who’s used to getting everything he wants. But you’re going to hit him back.”
They disperse and arrange themselves on the court to run through half-court offensive sets. There is one overriding emphasis. “One dribble,” Masiello says. “That’s all you get. The second you put it down for a second dribble, they are all over you. That second dribble is a turnover.”
On one play, RaShawn Stores initiates the offense several feet higher than Masiello wants. Masiello stops play. “Listen!” he yells. “I’m telling you details matter, and now you’re out here like a chicken with his head cut off!” He starts chuckling. “I know you’re terrified of Russ Smith. I know he’s probably taken your heart out in every single New York City game you guys played. But you’ve got to listen!”
He refers to the previous night, when the team watched film of last year’s Final Four game between Louisville and Wichita State. “Wichita State went 24 minutes without a turnover in that game,” he says. “They were plus-8 during that stretch. Taking care of the ball — that’s the game! This team cannot play with us in the half-court. If you flash and attack, if you move like you’re supposed to move, it is over! They can’t hang with us! I’m telling you, that’s a wrap!”
They continue going through the offense. Masiello is loud, but his team is louder. They are yelling on every pass of every play, directing each other on both sides of the ball. When a screen isn’t set in the right spot, someone is there to scream and point. When the movements aren’t crisp enough, someone gets in the offending player’s ear. When Masiello asks questions, the volume only grows. With Emmy Andujar setting up near the high post, Masiello asks, “Who’s guarding Emmy right now?”
“Trez!” the players shout, referring to Harrell.
“What does he like to do?”
Moments later, a scout team player catches the ball in the corner. “Who’s that?” calls Masiello.
“What’s Hancock going to do?”
As practice winds down, they return to the press break. Every screen is set in just the right spot, every guard flashes directly to the ball, and every pass is thrown hard and quick and on target. “That’s it!” Masiello yells. “Flawless! Flawless! Flawless!”
And for now, in a high school gym on a Tuesday evening going against no defense, he’s right. On the court by themselves, the Jaspers look like they can’t lose.
Wednesday, March 19
Practice — 12:20 p.m.
Edgewater High School
It’s a light day. “You guys have had some great practices,” Masiello says. “But they’ve been demanding physically. Today we’re going to ease up. But it’s crucial that you be attuned to what we’re saying, mentally.
“Everything you do, you have to have unbelievable focus,” he continues. In a few moments, the team will run through Louisville’s sets. “You’ve got to have them down cold. Because they’re not going to have you down cold. They’re not going to be worried enough about you to have you down cold.”
Film study — 10:55 p.m.
Buena Vista Palace Hotel, conference room
Masiello has saved one piece of film for the night before the game. He cues it up on the screen. It’s from March 17, 2011. Louisville vs. Morehead State. “This was my last game at Louisville,” he says. At the time, he was Pitino’s assistant. Weeks later, he’d take over at Manhattan. “First round of the tournament.”
“You know what seed Louisville is here? A 4. So what seed is Morehead? A 13.”
The video begins. “There’s a reason I want to show you this,” he says. “The personnel is different, but forget the personnel. It’s the same stuff. Morehead is a team that was really aggressive — not as aggressive as us, but close. And what this shows you is, a mirror image of them will bother them. You play them the way they play you. They hate it.”
He goes on to talk about Morehead State’s roster. That team was led by Kenneth Faried, now a starter for the Denver Nuggets. “Other than Faried?” Masiello says. “Average talent at best. But they played hard and they were well-coached and they made Louisville uncomfortable.”
On screen, the teams get into position for the jump ball. A Morehead player slaps a Louisville player’s hand. “Pause it,” Masiello says. “None of that. Do not shake their hands tomorrow. Got it? Not before the game. We are punking these dudes right away. Right away.”
He rolls through the tape. He applauds when Faried catches the ball in the high post and passes before taking a single dribble. “See that? That’s good coaching. You put it on the floor right there, it’s a turnover.” Moments later he asks, “Who’s the aggressor right now?”
“Morehead,” they respond. Masiello continues: “And what do you see? Louisville doesn’t like it.” They keep watching and Masiello gets more animated. He wants his players to be tough. He wants them to be fearless. He wants them to allow no dunks, to foul before they give up an open layup, to hit Louisville — “Legally!” he says — whenever they get a chance.
“Man!” he calls out, just before turning off the tape. “I wish we were playing tonight! Call up their hotel, somebody. Let’s go right now!”
The players laugh. The biggest game of their lives will have to wait for the already-scheduled time. Instead of calling Louisville, they order pizza — half cheese, half pepperoni — and soon after that, they go to bed.
Thursday, March 20
Standing in the parking lot — 7:39 p.m.
Buena Vista Palace Hotel
“Anybody going to Epcot?”
That’s what the bus driver asks when he pulls up. In response, a handful of tourists, visors on and John Grisham novels in hand, walk aboard. Meanwhile, the Jaspers’ bus is late. “Wouldn’t it be something,” says one team staffer, “if we were the first team to ever forfeit a game because our bus never showed up?”
They won’t find out. Minutes later, the bus finally arrives.
Locker room — 8:57 p.m.
Once they’re dressed, the players sit in front of their coach, ready to go over a few final points before taking the court.
“What do we do when Harrell gets the ball here?” he asks, pointing to a spot on the diagrammed court.
“What do we do when there’s a screen here, with the 1 and the 4?”
“Good,” Masiello says. “You guys know it. You’re as prepared as you can be.” Next, Grady, the assistant, reminds the players how they want to attack certain Louisville personnel. “No one’s dunking on us!” Masiello interjects. “Blow for blow. You make a play for the ball, but you hit them!”
Masiello’s intensity keeps rising as game time approaches. “Your major advantage is the moment,” he says. “You can’t give a broke man a million dollars and then steal it back from him. You can’t give a broke man a hundred dollars and steal it back from him. You just gave us a million dollars. We are in the NCAA tournament. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. And we are not — not! — giving it back.”
“The first loose ball,” he says. “You dive on it, you win the game. It’s that simple. You set the tone. Tonight, on defense, you become a darling. People are gonna say, ‘Did you see that Manhattan team play D?’ America’s gonna say, ‘This is our new favorite team. We’ve never seen anyone play that hard, talk that much, play 10 guys, defend like that. We’ve never seen it!’”
The players are nodding, clapping sporadically, using every pause to shout: Let’s go! “There is no room!” Masiello yells. “No room for prima donnas on that court tonight. Tonight, they will find out what inner-city toughness looks like! They’ve never seen it!”
At this, they all clap, all nod, all yell, all get ready to stand up and walk out and step on the court and win. But instead, first, they must sit. Saint Louis–NC State has gone into overtime, and so they wait. So Masiello offers something to occupy their time. “Rasheen!” he yells at assistant coach Rasheen Davis. “Play that music!”
The piano intro to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” fills the locker room. As the song starts, half the room raps along.
I used to pray for times like this / To rhyme like this
So I had to grind like that / To shine like this
The song continues as the players get taped, treated, or stretched. Some rap along. Some put on headphones. Some sit in silence. But by the time the song winds toward its frantic, screeching climax, most everyone is rocking and nodding, entranced as they all scream:
They gon’ remember me / I say remember me
So much money have ya friends turn into enemies
And with this beef I turn my enemies to memories
It is loud and frenetic and disquieting, a song that rearranges the entire room. And when it ends, for an instant, all goes quiet.
Tipoff — 10:33 p.m.
Michael Alvarado sends the message. Two minutes into the game he hits a 3 over Louisville guard Chris Jones. Before turning around, the senior point guard stops, stares at Jones, and shouts in his face. Moments later, he takes the ball to the rack against Jones and gets a layup. Again, he refuses to run back on defense before he yells at Jones, making it clear he isn’t here to upset Louisville. He’s here to embarrass them.
But it’s not all going exactly as planned. All week, Masiello said, No dunks, but three minutes in, Stephan Van Treese flies to the rack. Fifty seconds after that, Harrell catches an alley-oop. The half is ugly and physical; there is a spell of three minutes in which neither team scores. When halftime arrives, Manhattan is down 35-29.
Halftime — 11:42 p.m.
“Yo, hit somebody!” freshman guard Trevor Glassman screams as they enter the locker room. He’s not the only one. There are shouts of “Punch them in the mouth!” and “Get in their face!” This was not supposed to happen. Manhattan was not supposed to trail by six. The Jaspers came here to stand up to a bully. So far, more often than not, they have been getting pushed around.
Masiello walks in. The angry autocrat who occasionally showed up in practice is nowhere to be found. “Relax!” he says. “Relax, relax, relax.”
He waits for his players to settle down and find their seats. “No one’s played well, and you’re only down six,” he says. “You’re in a great spot. Just take control of the backboard, and you’ll be fine.” Louisville has a 23-15 advantage on the boards. “You are bothering this team,” he says. “They are not having fun. But you guys are in here rattled — they’re the ones who should be rattled!
“Think about this,” he continues. “[Manhattan senior center] Rhamel Brown does not have a single rebound. [Leading scorer] George Beamon is not playing well at all. And here we are down six. Do you really think we’re going to come out in the second half and those two guys aren’t going to show up? Of course they’re going to show up!”
The players have mentioned that Louisville has been talking trash all night. Davis, the assistant, jumps in: “They’re talking trash because they’re rattled.”
“You are getting to them,” Masiello says. “They do not like the way this game is going.” He takes a couple steps back and forth and scans the room: “Listen, we have to pick up our toughness. Our toughness! So we’re sitting here, and all we have to do is pick up our toughness? That’s it? With this Manhattan team? Man, I feel great. That’s no problem. The toughness is going to get better. That’s who we are.”
He tells them: “You have to believe.” All week, something resembling belief has been there. They have spoken as if a win were theirs for the taking, as if there were no question they could end the season of the no. 5 team in the country. Yet here, in the middle of a game that took what felt like forever to actually arrive, Masiello is still laboring to convince his players that all their bravado has been real. “Deep down in your heart of hearts,” he says, “you have to believe.”
Start of the second half — 11:52 p.m.
The Jaspers start the half on an 8-0 run to take the lead. Beamon finds a way to contribute by crashing the boards. Brown locks down the paint. Andujar finds gaps in the defense and converts inside. Manhattan is nothing like the stereotypical Cinderella. This is not a group of shooters who happen to catch fire at the perfect moment, but rather a team that is playing Louisville’s game and — at the moment — playing it better than the defending champs. The action is awkward and ugly and at times difficult to watch. But it’s effective.
After Louisville reclaims the lead, Manhattan hangs around deep into the second half. With about six minutes remaining, the Jaspers make their final push. Four made free throws from Tyler Wilson, Brown, and Andujar. A layup inside by Brown. Another layup by Wilson. And just like that, with 2:34 remaining, Manhattan leads, 60-58.
But moments later, Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear gets a bucket. Tie game. Andujar takes the ball out of bounds. All week, Masiello has begged his players to demand the ball against the press, to streak toward the inbounder or any big man who catches the ball and scream for him to put it in their hands. All night, they’ve done just that. But now, as Andujar catches the inbounds and looks to make a pass, he finds no one nearby. Instead, he fires a long, cross-court pass toward RaShawn Stores on the opposite sideline. Hancock darts into the gap and steals the pass; then he drives to the basket and draws a foul. Two free throws. 62-60.
Moments later, Louisville has the ball again. The Cardinals swing it toward Hancock on the right wing. All week, whenever Hancock’s name came up, it was followed by two words — Shot fake! The Jaspers players yelled in meeting rooms, on practice courts, and right here in Amway Arena. But now he catches the ball and Beamon sprints at him, leaping as Hancock goes to shoot. But Hancock doesn’t shoot. He pulls the fake back down, allows Beamon to fly past him, and then settles to go up again.
Hancock’s shot is good. The dagger is halfway in. After one more 3 from Hancock, the game is effectively over. The clock runs out. Final score: Louisville 71, Manhattan 64.
Locker room — 1:03 a.m.
Some cry. Some stare blankly at whatever’s in front of them. Some put their heads in their hands. Sitting near the front of the room, sophomore forward Ashton Pankey breaks the silence: “We fought, though,” he says. “Hell of a run.”
Masiello walks in. Moments later, Rick Pitino will tell reporters that Masiello outcoached him on this night. A day later, Masiello will emerge as a reported candidate for the job at South Florida. This might be his last game at Manhattan. But for now, he comforts his team.
“It’s OK to feel,” he says. A few sniffles get louder. “It’s OK to feel, guys.”
“We made it ugly,” he continues. “They made it ugly, too.” He looks at the seniors — Beamon, Brown, and Alvarado — one by one. “You seniors are the best senior class in the history of Manhattan College,” he says. “I love you guys so, so much. I know this feels awful. We’ll reflect on it in two or three weeks and feel great about what we accomplished. I’ve never been this proud in my life. Ever. I love you guys.”
A huddle forms and then breaks. Players gather gear. Assistants talk in hushed tones. Five days ago, Masiello had sat in disbelief at his team’s draw, seemingly unable to fathom how the Jaspers could stay on the court with the “bigger, better” version of themselves. All week, he and his team had talked themselves into something approximating belief. Their game plan was solid. There were advantages they could exploit. If only the shots would fall. If only the calls and bounces would go their way. We’re on our way to a national championship, they had said, and it sounded almost natural.
Tonight, deep in the second half, that almost-belief hardened into something concrete. Manhattan was tougher than Louisville, it seemed, and stronger and better conditioned. Maybe the Jaspers were the ones who deserved to be favored. Maybe this wouldn’t be an upset at all.
But then, with one bad pass and one botched closeout on one deadly shooter, the whole thing came apart. Belief was shattered. Careers were ended. And now, amid the despair, they have to walk down a hall and sit in a chair and explain to the media exactly how and why they lost. On the way to the press conference, Masiello says, “Seniors, come with me.”
He starts to walk out, but he stops, turns, and looks back at the seniors. He gives one last instruction.
“Leave your uniforms on.”