There weren't many who expected the Manhattan men's team, prior to the 2011-12 season, to be as good as it was when its 21 victories matched the greatest improvement over the previous year (6-25) of any team nationally.
After that, even more was expected this year.
No one expected the Jaspers to struggle this season. Not with just about every player of importance returning. But, Manhattan had been playing far below expectations, slipping to a 3-6 conference record and at 5-14 overall after a loss to Loyola on Jan. 25.
Yet, that type of slippage was more than understandable for any team that basically has played the season without its signature standout, 6-foot-4 senior swingman George Beamon, who led the conference in scoring a year ago. A severe series of ankle injuries, though, only allowed Beamon to play four games before he was shut down as a medical redshirt to set up a return to the program next season.
And, then, suddenly Manhattan has turned things around in a manner no one expected.
Since the Jan. 25 loss to Loyola the Jaspers have won five of their last six games. Wins in their past four contests makes Manhattan the hottest team in the MAAC.
And, the victories haven't exactly come against weak opposition. Of the last five wins, only one (against Saint Peter's) has come against an opponent with a losing record.
The others have come against Rider, Canisius, Fairfield and Iona, all teams that had been ahead of the Jaspers in the conference standings when those games were played.
The latest came Friiday night, a double-overtime 74-73 victory against Iona.
A year ago Manhattan succeeded with a pressure defense and an uptempo style of play that produced a per-game scoring average of 71.2. This year that scoring average (predictable, considering the loss of Beamon) is down more than 12 points per game, to 59.1.
Now, Manhattan is finding success predicated strongly on its defensive work.
"Basically, I just try to come out and focus on defense," junior center Rhamel Brown told the New York Daily News, after Friday's victory. "That's how we try to come in every single game. We try to lock the other team down and when we do that we're successful."
Successful? In the current four-game winning streak, Manhattan has held opponents to 49, 54 and 40 points before allowing 72 to the Gaels. But, that's still 10 points below Iona's per-game average, and it took Iona an additional 10 minutes (two overtime sessions) to even reach 72 against Manhattan. The Gaels only had 58 points, 24 below their season average, after regulation.
Brown has been a big part of Manhattan's defensive success, and came up huge against the Gaels on Friday with 21 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocked shots. He currently ranks 10th nationally in blocks per game (3.08).
And, on Friday, he helped produce the game-winning basket when he rebounded a missed free throw by teammate Mike Alvarado in the closing seconds of the second overtime, passed the ball back to Alvarado, who then delivered it to Emmy Andujar for a game-winning drive to the basket.
Afterwards, Masiello admitted that Brown had to talk his way into position to get that particular offensive rebound.
"The game is on the line, Mike Alvarado is shooting and (Rhamel) grabs me ... and I don't believe in having big guys on the foul line (for rebounds) because they foul," Masiello told the Daily News. "But he (Brown) says, `Coach, put me at the line. If Mike misses I'll get the rebound.' "
And, he did.
"The kid (Brown) is going to be one of the greatest players to ever put on a Manhattan uniform," Masiello said of Brown. "He is a joy to coach and I couldn't be more proud of a player."
The loss continues a surprising late-season slide by Iona, which has as much talent as any team in the conference. The Gaels are now 1-4 in their last five games with two of those setbacks in double overtime and another after a single OT session.
Manhattan's recent run pushed it into a two-way tie for sixth place (with Fairfield) with an 8-7 conference record. And the Jaspers are just a single game behind the three-way tie for third place with Iona, Canisius and Rider all at 9-6.
It's been a remarkable resurgence by Manhattan, now in a position most expected from the team this season ... accomplished in a most-unexpected manner.