The Cardinals (29-5, 15-3 AAC) start off the defense of their national championship with a matchup against the Manhattan Jaspers (25-7, 15-5), who finished second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s regular season. The Jaspers won the MAAC conference tournament by defeating rival Iona and come into the matchup with Louisville having won 11 of their last 12.
The Jaspers are back in the tournament for the first time since 2004, looking for their fourth NCAA tournament victory and first since shocking the world by beating Florida a decade ago.
Manhattan is coached by Steve Masiello, who has a long history with Louisville’s Rick Pitino.
Masiello and Pitino’s relationship goes back to 1987, when Pitino was the 35-year-old coach of the New York Knicks and Masiello was a 10-year-old ball boy for the team. Masiello ended up playing for Pitino as a walk-on at Kentucky, and later coaching under him for six years at Louisville, before being hired at Manhattan in 2011.
Masiello has referred to Pitino as “a second father” but now has to play the one team he really didn’t want to face.
Masiello knows, perhaps better than anyone, how tough Pitino’s Cardinals are and recognizes that “We’re gonna have our work cut out for us.”
“How they’re a 4-seed I have no idea,” Masiello said. “They have the best guard in the country in Russ Smith. One of the best if not the best tournament coach. So it’s a really tough game for us to play and a bad matchup.”
Masiello has done a tremendous job at Manhattan, turning a program that went 6-25 the season before he arrived into an NCAA tournament squad in three short years. These Jaspers are 25-7, including 16 wins on road or neutral courts, which is the second most in the country, behind only undefeated Wichita State (17).
Louisville is currently favored to beat the No. 13 Jaspers by 16, but no coach knows Louisville’s personnel better than Masiello. As an assistant at Louisville, he recruited guard Russ Smith long before he developed into a Wooden Award candidate and NCAA champion. Smith even considered a transfer to Manhattan when he struggled as a freshman.
The Jaspers employ a very similar style of play as the Cardinals, which Masiello learned from Pitino during his time as a Louisville assistant.
“They’re basically the bigger, better version of us, so it’s very, very tough,” Masiello said. “They’re better than us at every position. I’m going against the guy that taught me everything I know. So they have every advantage there is. And they’re playing the best basketball of anybody in the country. From a matchup standpoint there’s not one good thing about it for Manhattan.”
Defensive pressure has been the Jasper’s signature all season long, as Manhattan applies a suffocating half-court defense, forcing opponents into turnovers and poor shots. Manhattan is ranked 16th in Division I in steals per game (8.3), and 60th in defensive field goal percentage (41.0).
As great as Manhattan is at creating turnovers, they are almost as bad at giving the ball back themselves. The Jaspers turn the ball over on 19.6 percent of possessions, which ranks 263rd in the nation.
Therein lies the problem. Louisville plays the exact same style, and is even better at it by creating 10.3 steals per game (No. 2 nationally) and limiting opponents to a field goal percentage of 39.3 (No. 16 nationally).
Manhattan’s penchant for turning the ball over coupled with Louisville’s suffocating defense spells disaster for the Jaspers.