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Manhattan matchup is nightmare for coach

NEW YORK -- Steve Masiello didn’t raise his arms. He didn’t pump his fists. He didn’t jump out of his chair when he saw his team’s name pop up on the TV screen Sunday night -- what should have been one of the best moments of his life.

No, Steve Masiello closed his eyes.

And when he opened them after a moment, he looked as though he’d just been punched in the gut. Because he had.

Masiello has guided Manhattan back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. But the Jaspers will play the one team Masiello really didn’t want to face -- Louisville, one of the hottest teams in the country, and coached by his mentor, Rick Pitino.

“We got a very difficult seed, [Louisville] really should be a 2-seed in this tournament,” Masiello told the large crowd of family and friends assembled at Thomas Hall on campus to watch the selection show. “We’re gonna have our work cut out for us.”

Louisville's status -- ranked No. 5 in the country but only a No. 4 seed in this tournament -- shocked many college basketball observers nationwide.

Almost equally as stunning was Masiello’s candor Sunday night. After all, this is the same guy who, in his introductory news conference three years ago, boasted that Manhattan would be “the hardest-working team in the country, bar none,” and, “We are gonna take New York back over and be where we belong.” Confidence typically oozes out of him.

But Masiello knows, perhaps better than anyone, how tough Pitino’s Cardinals are.

“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 and Pitino go way back -- all the way 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 called Pitino “a second father” in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com in the fall of his first season with the Jaspers. And now he has to try to beat him in order to take the next step on his own professional journey.

Another reporter suggested that the selection committee was having a little fun with this pairing. “Not fun for me,” Masiello said. “I don’t know who they’re having fun with, but it’s not fun for me.”

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 -- the second most in the country, behind only undefeated Wichita State (17).

Their biggest strength is their pressure defense -- Manhattan is ranked 16th in Division I in steals per game (8.3), and 60th in defensive field goal percentage (41.0).

The problem? Louisville plays the exact same style, and is even better at it -- second in steals per game (10.3), and 16th in defensive field goal percentage (39.3).

“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.”

The Manhattan players still basked in the moment, with hugs and high-fives all around. Senior starters George Beamon, Rhamel Brown and Mike Alvarado, who sat with Masiello in the front row Sunday, were around for that 6-25 season, so they know full well how far this program has come.

“I'll be happy playing anybody in this tournament,” said Beamon, Manhattan’s leading scorer (19.2 PPG). “We definitely got a shot against anybody, but we know we’re the underdog. We just gotta go out there and give it our all, play our best.”

Those precious few hours after the selection show Sunday night are the time for players to dream big dreams -- and for the coaches to get to work. Masiello and his staff expected to have a long night ahead of them.

After all, they had to figure out how to beat a better version of themselves.

But by the time Masiello was wrapping up his interviews and getting ready to meet with his assistant coaches, he sounded like a man with an already evolving perspective.

“I’m really excited about the matchup in the sense that, Manhattan’s program is now in the NCAA [tournament] and look at the conversation we're having, we're talking about us matching up with Rick Pitino three years in,” Masiello said. “From that standpoint, I couldn’t be happier and prouder of where this program is and I think it’s gonna be an awesome opportunity.”