SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - Bias is everywhere in our world whether we are aware of it or not. Sometimes, it's nice to be blissfully ignorant. Other times? Not so much.
We've all been to games where both teams' supporters are convinced the referees are against them, that every close call went the other way, despite the improbability and illogical nature of that thought if their mind was clear of the dreaded bias.
Bias, of course, enters our lives in much more insidious ways that go far beyond basketball into areas that can do real damage to furthering society as a whole.
Confirmation bias is a psychological offshoot of bias, and is fairly simple, it means that we look for facts and general data that back up what we believe, while ignoring - both consciously and unconsciously - things that bolster the other side.
"Did you see those three calls in the second half? They were awful," while failing to bring up the three controversial whistles that went in your favor.
I try in my life very hard to stay away from bias and prejudice, but it's not easy, and I can't say I'm always successful.
Manhattan is close enough to my home and plays enough local squads that I've seen them as much as any other team the last couple of seasons, which means I've seen their now second-year head coach Steve Masiello plenty as well.
And I'm not a big fan. In fact, most of the time, I'm not a fan at all. He's constantly yelling, storming up and down the sidelines, always seeming to be looking for an edge with officials, with opponents, with everyone. He seems like he's the type of coach who will promise the world to Manhattan, but is just looking to make a name for himself to jump to a bigger school the first chance he gets. His Associate Coach Matt Grady may be the most intense person in college basketball, never smiling, always screaming, and leading the nation in times he has to be told to sit down.
Now I write all this without ever having actually talked to either of these men, something people sadly do every day in the sportz culture.
When Manhattan stumbled through the first half of the season, I didn't shed a tear (although you never like to see someone injured, and I felt for one of the best scorers in the MAAC, George Beamon, who was sidelined for most of the campaign). My confirmation bias may have nodded in approval; see I knew he's not a great coach (Masiello had engineered the biggest win-total improvement in Division I in his first season).
But the truth is always there, if we want to look for it, if we can attempt to shut off our biases and see it for what it really is. From Socrates and Plato on down, many have tried and few have succeeded.
Fortunately, we do have numbers in Our Game, and mysteriously Masiello and Manhattan started being competitive. Then they started winning. After looking to push tempo last season with full-court pressure, Masiello did almost a 180, although the intensity on defense remained the same. Somehow, the Jaspers, 5-14 at one point and without their best player, were the hottest team in the MAAC.
Removing the goggles of bias, it was clear that this was a well-drilled, well-prepared outfit that knew exactly what the gameplan was and executed it. You could also see belief, it would have been easy to feel sorry for themselves with Beamon watching and unable to play, but Manhattan didn't seem to care.
Suddenly, here was Manhattan in the MAAC semifinals, two games from the NCAA Tournament.
Bias be damned, it might be the best coaching job I've seen this season (and Grady, in charge of scouting opponents probably deserves credit for a lot of the defensive masterpieces as well).
Two of those wins late in the season came against Fairfield, humiliating for the Stags, who managed only 40 points in a game on their campus that I witnessed, and then were beaten 34-31 in one of the lowest-scoring Division I games in history at Manhattan a couple of weeks later. Do the math: 71 points for Fairfield in two meetings.
For someone like Grady or Masiello, this was almost like shooting the proverbial fish in the barrel. They knew the Stags as well as they knew themselves.
However, Sydney Johnson is no idiot, and he had a plan of his own for this semifinal, and that was to go against his nature a bit and try to push tempo at every opportunity. Yes, his team was playing its third game in less than 48 hours, but he knew Fairfield needed to score, and the best way to do it against the Manhattan zone was to get shots early in possessions.
Sure enough, when Colin Nickerson found fellow senior Derek Needham ahead of the pack in transition for a layup, the Stags led 16-5 with 8:25 to go in the first half. Advantage Fairfield in the chess match of the upstarts.
Alas, Fairfield would only score 26 points in the final 28 minutes of the game. Once the transition opportunities dried up, Fairfield was back in the half-court where Manhattan had already drained the confidence from them long ago. Johnson tried throwing different bodies at Masiello; Coleman Johnson, little used early in the season, scored 10 points primarily by sitting in the middle of the Fairfield zone, but Manhattan soon plugged that hole, and the Stags simply didn't have enough weapons to compensate.
Eventually, Sydney Johnson found his pieces under fire and he had to know checkmate was coming soon.
Manhattan attempted only 13 field goals in the entire second half, yet their lead ballooned disproportionately to that statistic because they kept going inside through Emmy Andujar and Rhamel Brown. The Jaspers were 22-for-27 at the free throw line in the second half alone, and by the final media time out, it was clear they were headed to an improbable MAAC final through guts and a masterful coaching job.
As time wound down, I looked over to Fairfield cheerleaders - whom we've seen before here at Mid-majority
- and saw their poor captains in tears, trying hard to keep a stoic look, but knowing that the end was near. It was an agonizing three minutes full of substitutions and whistles, Johnson got all his seniors out and had a big hug for Derek Needham, who may not have had the senior season he was dreaming of, but never stopped fighting for his team and his coach.
Finally the ax fell on the Stags, their cheerleaders, their band, and everyone else involved with their program. As it had for many before them, and as it will for the rest at some point in the next couple of weeks. But it doesn't make it any easier most of the time, does it?
Somehow, Manhattan had cheated the hangman all the way to the MAAC finals, one game from an NCAA Tournament even they couldn't have dreamed of when their record stood at 5-14 a couple of months ago. But that's the beauty of Our Game, isn't it?
I still wonder, just like with guys like Jimmy Patsos, why a lot of the on-court histrionics are necessary for a coach like Masiello. And I still believe it would be alright for a guy like Grady, who's surely watching a million things at once on every defensive possession, to smile once in a while on the court.
But thankfully my bias against vocal, demonstrative coaches did not blind me to the fact that Masiello and his staff did a brilliant job this season, and I think Manhattan - regardless of what happens the rest of the way this season - will be a force soon because of it.