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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
After losing three senior starters from a team that stormed through the MAAC for two seasons and came within a whisker of reaching the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 in 2004, it was only natural that Manhattan took a step back last season.
The Jaspers, who MAAC coaches picked to finish first in the league in their preseason poll, started three freshmen for almost the entire season and their youth showed. Although Manhattan played its best basketball at the end of the season (winning five of its final eight games), it faltered on the road (going 3-11, including 1-8 in conference) and in close games (five two-point losses).
Now, the good news. With the exception of first-team All-MAAC forward Peter Mulligan (19.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), their lone senior starter, the Jaspers return all of their major contributors from last season and they are all expected to be improved.
"I like that we have 10 guys back," Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez said. "We don't have that much older experience, but we have a lot of returnees who have played."
Starting with sophomore forward C.J. Anderson (16.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.3 bpg), who led Manhattan in minutes played last season while earning MAAC Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
"He's not far away from being one of the best players in the conference," Gonzalez said. "He's a special player, there's no doubt about it."
At 6-6, Anderson is a tough match-up for almost everyone in the MAAC. He's too big for guards and two quick for other forwards.
Anderson, who was chosen MAAC Rookie of the Week eight times, finished second in the league in rebounding and played his best against better competition, including an 18-point, 15-rebound effort in a loss at North Carolina State.
"We couldn't guard him last year," said Canisius coach Mike MacDonald, who watched Anderson score 25 points and grab 16 boards in a win over his club.
Although Anderson, who was recruited by some Big East schools, is extremely talented, his skills are not what impress his coach the most.
"His heart and desire, he's just a warrior" Gonzalez said. "He has great ability, but his personality exceeds his basketball talent."
Anderson is part of a sophomore class, along with forward Arturo Dubois and guard Jeff Xavier, that has already started to leave its mark at Manhattan.
Dubois (9.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is a powerful 6-8 post player who made 26 starts while learning the nuances of the college game last season.
"The sky is the limit with him," Gonzalez said. "He's got a great body, runs the floor well and is good around the basket."
Dubois must learn to stay out of foul trouble (he fouled out 12 times last season) and improve his free-throw shooting (.559 FT) to become an elite player in the MAAC.
Xavier (7.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg), a 6-0 guard, is a solid shooter (48-of-130, .369 3PT) who is coming off a strong performance with the MAAC All-Stars (12.0 ppg) in their seven-game tour of China.
"I think he's going to be our most improved player," Gonzalez said.
The Class of 2008 also received a boost when Franck Traore, a 6-8, 260-pound forward signed in May. Traore averaged 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks for Eastfield Community College last season and will provide immediate help inside.
"He's a great piece of the puzzle," Gonzalez said. "He's a space eater who is fundamentally sound, boxes out and runs the floor well."
In addition to having several talented second-year players, the Jaspers also boast experience at point guard, where seniors Jason Wingate (8.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.1 apg) and Kenny Minor (4.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.5 apg) return.
The two, who are roommates, provide stability and maturity.
"They are both lefties, they are both tough kids and they are both mature kids," Gonzalez said.
The 6-0 Wingate, who started 26 games last season, averaged 9.3 points and 7.1 assists with NIT All-Stars in a tour of England and Ireland this summer. Wingate is more comfortable in half-court situations than the 5-8 Minor, who likes to pressure the ball and create tempo.
"It's kind of like having a fastball pitcher and a change-up pitcher," Gonzalez said. "Wingate is more of a Mark Jackson type. He's steady and gets you into stuff [on offense]. Minor is more of a Muggsy Bogues type. He's a waterbug, ball-hawking kind of guy."
Like Minor, 6-5 senior Mike Konovelchick (6.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.3 apg) endured some inconsistencies last season and Gonzalez is hoping the two play their best basketball as seniors. Konovelchick's shooting was a big key to Manhattan's success in 2003-04, but he struggled (24-of-98, .245 3PT) from the perimeter last season.
"I just hope that he gets some shots to fall and gets some confidence going, because he can be a big help for us," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is also optimistic that juniors Guy Ngarndi (1.1 ppg) and Darren Johnson (1.4 ppg) can put together solid seasons. Ngarndi, a 6-8 forward/center, is an explosive player who practices well but has not yet found a comfort level in games.
Johnson, a 6-7 forward, adds toughness and could be a surprise because he hasn't played much in his first two seasons.
Mihai Enescu (0.8 ppg), a 7-0 senior center, and C.J. Lee (0.7 ppg), a 6-1 sophomore guard, also return. Enescu may be able to provide some minutes inside off the bench and Lee is a solid player who is looking to find his niche.
Devon Austin, a 6-6 freshman wing from White Plains, N.Y., could step into a prominent role. Austin, whose brother Markus was a standout at Eastern Michigan, received interest from Georgetown and St. John's before committing to Manhattan last fall. He is long and lean and can shoot from the outside.
"I think he's the steal of the draft," Gonzalez said. "He has tremendous skill level and scoring ability for his size."
Christian Jackson, a 6-5 guard from Suitland High School in Alexandria, Va., completes the incoming freshman class. Jackson averaged 20 points and eight rebounds and had a high-game of 40 during his senior season.
"He's a [former Niagara guard] David Brooks type," Gonzalez said. "He's a big strong guard that can also score."
Gonzalez, who has earned his reputation as a top recruiter, doesn't seem to be losing his touch. Andre Tarver, a 6-2 guard from Wings Academy in the Bronx, committed to Manhattan last fall -- before his junior season.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Gonzalez has a good thing going at Manhattan, and the Jaspers can be expected to take a step forward this season.
Anderson is a special talent who could contend for MAAC Player of the Year if his team wins the league. He needs to improve his perimeter and free-throw shooting and avoid the foul trouble that disqualified him seven times last season.
That is a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of a sophomore, but if anyone in the MAAC can handle that, it's Anderson.
Anderson is not a solo act. Xavier and Dubois give Manhattan a solid trio for the next two seasons and Wingate and Minor can provide veteran leadership.
If Konovelchick's shot returns and Traore and Austin perform up to expectations, Manhattan should win more close games and improve its road performance.
The Jaspers are still young, but they could have just enough talent and experience to make their third NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.
For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).