Saturday, February 5, 2011

Jaspers' Youth Ensures Bright Future

On Jan. 30th Manhattan got a highlight reel moment, a much-needed late-season boost of good feelings, when freshman guard Mike Alvarado banked in a 65-foot desparation heave at the final buzzer to win a game, 60-59, at Marist.

Five days later, with the glow of national media subsided after Alvarado's "Manhattan Miracle," the Jaspars dropped a 64-57 decision against Siena at the Times Union Center in Albany and the initial response to that could easily be this: Back to the dismal days for Manhattan.

After all the Jaspers fell to 2-10 in MAAC play and 4-19 overall.

But if one looks close enough at what Manhattan has in place right now the view uncovers justifiable optimism for future highlights far beyond a single "fortunate" long-distance heave.

Better days are ahead for the Manhattan team, maybe good enough ones to eventually get it back to some pretty good times of the not-so-distant past for the basketball team from Riverdale, N.Y.

It wasn't that long ago when Manhattan was as dominant in MAAC play as Siena was over the past three seasons, or Fairfield appears to be right now.

From 2000-01 through 2005-06, a six-year span, Manhattan won (three times) or finished second (twice) in the conference standings five times. The Jaspers had a 76-32 conference record over that span including four 20-plus victory seasons overall.

A look at what Manhattan has in place right now, or at least a little imagination about what its current cast might eventually become, results in the conclusion that similar days aren't far off.

You can blame the team's current record as much on youth and inexperience as anything. The talent is there. It just needs to ripen, to develop, to mature.

Starters on Friday night against Siena included two freshmen (point guard Alvarado, and 6-foot-6 forward Rhamel Brown) and a sophomore (6-4 swingman George Beamon).

The other two starters were junior college transfer Kidani Brutus at guard and 6-8 grad student forward Demetrius Jemison, who joined the program for the second semester after three seasons at Alabama.

In short ... four new players to the Manhattan program, and one (Beamon) who saw limited action a year ago.

The growing pains are evident, but starting to pay off. Three games ago the Jaspers took first-place Fairfield to the wire before losing, 61-59 in Bridgeport, Conn. Then came the victory at Marist, courtesy of Alvarado's 65-footer. And, Friday, the Jaspers threw a scare into Siena, holding a mid-second half lead and, then, hanging around (within four with 1:06 remaining) before the Saints closed out a 64-57 victory.

"It definitely is a challenge to coach such a young team," admitted Manhattan's fifth-year coach Barry Rohrssen. "Any coach would find it a challenge to work with such a `new' team. It would be for any coach to rely on so many young players.

"And, we've got freshmen in the two key positions, point guard and center. I'm not a chess master, but in that game the two key pieces are the king and the queen. That's where you have to be strong. In college basketball the two key pieces are point guard and center, and we've got a lack of experience there right now."

But, not a lack of talent. Alvarado, based on Friday's look, is one of the more-talented point guards the league has seen recently. He averages 10.5 points and 3.3 assists per game.

Brown, an athletic post player, averages 7.4 points and 8.2 rebounds and will only improve on the block as he adds muscle to his still-slender 215-pound frame. He already has 51 blocks this season, the fifth-best single-season total by a Jasper in the program's history, and could approach the best single-season mark of 74 (set by Arturo Dubois, 2005-06).

And, then, there's Beamon, a major point-producer who averages 15.2 points per game and who had 17 against Siena, who looks like a future conference scoring leader.

Those three -- Alvarado, Brown and Beamon -- will be together for two more seasons after this one giving Manhattan an exciting, talented nucleus that should deliver it considerably north, in future years, of where it currently resides in the conference standings.

Rohrssen, formerly an assistant at Pitt, has a reputation for being an outstanding recruiter. In past years, he has taken a few quick fixes that haven't delivered much in terms of victories (including one-and-done divisive piece Rico Pickett, a transfer from Alabama, who left with a year's eligibility remaining to pursue professional opportunities). But, Rohrssen has delivered the program's foundation for the future with the likes of Alvarado, Brown and Beamon.

There is another freshman in place, 6-7 long-range shooter Torgrim Sommerfeldt of Norway, who originally committed to attend Wake Forest. Sommerfeldt, though, has not played this year due to injury but looks like he could be another nice piece to Manhattan's future.

And, Rohrssen has already received four commitments from players who will join the program next season and the guess here is that there will be more strong contributions coming from that group.

But the need for them to contribute as much as the current freshmen are contributing, out of necessity, won't be as crucial next season.

"It's probably not fair that our young guys have had to play so much," added Rohrssen. "But, that's the situation that we're in. So, they're getting a baptism under fire. What you hope is that down the road the experience our young guys get now starts paying dividends."

Some of those dividends could even start paying off by the end of the year. But, if not, then those dividends aren't far off as the future for Manhattan basketball looks very bright.

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