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Men's Basketball: 2019-20 Season Preview

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

Life is different in The City That Never Sleeps. A child wakes up as the subway rumbles through Manhattan at 4 AM, then quickly falls back asleep. A car speeds through a red light on Amsterdam Avenue, playing Old Town Road at a volume well over 100 decibels. While NYC may be known for its loudness, not everyone appreciates the disruptions. “It’s time we had some positive noise around here,” says Yeshiva University student Alexander Wildes. “If I’m going to need a hearing aid when I get older, it better be for a good reason.”

Well, Wildes need not look far. On the ground floor of his college dormitory, the squeak of shoes reverberates around the Max Stern Athletic Center. Inside, a basketball team of 18 is running drills, preparing for a four month-long season which they hope to conclude with a second conference championship in three years and a trip back to the NCAA Division III Tournament.

The Yeshiva Maccabees are ready to make some positive noise this year. Set to return to the hardwood in just two days, the Macs look to turn the city upside down with their marvelous chemistry and thunderous dunks. Led by Gabriel Leifer, Simcha Halpert and Ryan Turell—all members of the 2018-19 Skyline Conference First Team—and powered by a deep and talented bench, YU is currently home to arguably its best team in school history.

This year, the Macs will attempt to replicate both last year’s regular season success and the Skyline Playoffs success of two years ago. After winning their first ever conference championship in 2017-18, the Macs went on a 17-game winning streak last year. Unfortunately, the team came away empty, falling in the Skyline Final to Farmingdale State. The experiences of both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are fresh on the teams’ mind. For those players who experienced both, they can certainly say that the former would be much preferred this year.

Where do the Macs stand as they try to make a run at history again? What does the schedule look like this year? What players have come, and who has gone? What storylines may surround the team this season? And, most importantly, what can we expect out of the Macs this year? Keep reading to find out.

How about that schedule, though?

Simply put, YU’s out-of-conference schedule is pretty rough. However, that is completely by design. The Macs want to challenge themselves as much as possible without it hurting their chances of making it back to the DIII Tournament, and build up their resume in the meantime. The Skyline Conference is too weak to realistically produce two tournament teams; the winner of the Conference Final on March 1st will be the only team in the Skyline to make the field of 64. However, should the Macs make the tournament, their Strength of Schedule will be one of the factors which the NCAA committee uses to decide where to seed them. If the Macs can prove themselves to be tough opponents, and win a few of the more difficult out-of-conference games, they will set themselves up nicely for a very winnable matchup in the first round of the tournament.

Another factor which comes into play is that practically all of the Macs’ out-of-conference games are on the road. YU will play two games each in California and Maryland to begin the year; three of their other five non-conference games are away from the Max Stern Athletic Center as well. Notable games include: @ Occidental College (Los Angeles, CA), 22-5 last year; @ Salisbury University (Salisbury, MD), 19-9 last year, 15 seed in NCAA DIII Tournament; @ Eastern Connecticut State (Willimantic, CT), 20-7 last year; vs. New Jersey City University (Jersey City, NJ), 20-8 last year, 6 seed in NCAA DIII Tournament; @ Moravian College (Bethlehem, PA), 20-9 last year, lost in Second Round of NCAA DIII Tournament; @ Williams College (Williamstown, MA), 23-7 last year, lost in Quarterfinals of NCAA DIII Tournament. In the committee’s eyes, wins on the road are considered to be more valuable than home wins.

Undoubtedly, the Macs will be challenged this year, which will hopefully bode well for the team in the high-pressure environment of early March. “The goal is to win in the tournament,” Coach Elliot Steinmetz says. “To do that, we’ve got to play real games.”

With regards to the Skyline Conference, the Macs appear to be head-and-shoulders above the competition. With the return of Manhattanville College to the Skyline, in-conference scheduling has changed a little bit. The 12 teams will be split into two divisions, the North and South. Each team in the North will play teams in the South once and teams in the North twice, and vice versa. The North is comprised of Manhattanville, Maritime, Merchant Marine, Mount Saint Mary, Purchase, and Sarah Lawrence. Teams in the South include Farmingdale State, Mount Saint Vincent, Old Westbury, St. Joseph’s-Brooklyn, St. Joseph’s-Long Island, and Yeshiva. This means that the Macs will still get two games in the regular season against Farmingdale State, last year’s conference champion, and Old Westbury, which YU beat in the semifinals. Farmingdale State is much weaker this season, as their top three players—George Riefenstahl, Matthew Graham, and Ali Mableton—all graduated.

To get a good idea for the expectations within the Skyline Conference this year, check out the 2019-20 Skyline Conference’s Preseason Coaches Poll. For a more in-depth look at the Skyline Conference, stay tuned for our Skyline Conference Preview article, which will be released shortly before conference play commences.

What’s the roster like?

On paper, the Macs have a significantly stronger roster this year. Only three seniors graduated: Tal Gweta, Michael Hayon, and Justin Hod; only Gweta was a starter. Hayon was a backup forward who provided some important minutes off the bench, typically coming in whenever Dani Katz needed a breather or was in foul trouble. If not for Hod, it is unlikely that the Macs would have won the conference championship two years ago. That said, his minutes were diminished last year, as his main role was to be used as a three-point shooter in desperate times.

The Macs return four of their starting five from last year; this includes their indisputable top three players. Having established chemistry with each other for an entire season, Turell, Leifer, and Halpert should find no problems getting into a rhythm early on. YU also brings in five first-year students, who should have a positive impact on the team. The most notable player of the five is Ofek Reef, a freshman from Texas who I expect to receive about 20 minutes/game. Eitan Halpert, who started the first few games last season due to brother Simcha’s injury, is expected to start at the beginning of the year in place of Gweta. In addition, Caleb Milobsky, who came over from Israel mid-season, is developing nicely, and has familiarized himself with the Macs’ style of basketball. Caleb will likely take on a workload slightly greater than Hayon’s last year.

For a closer look at each individual player on the Macs’ roster, please read our Roster Preview.

What are some key things to watch for?

1) The Depth On The Bench

The depth of this Macs team is astounding. Besides for the big three, there are at least six players who have a legitimate argument to start. The ability to have talented, fresh legs on the floor at any time allows the Macs to play relentless basketball for 40 minutes. Whether it be pushing the ball in transition, pressing the opponent into mistakes, or keeping the pedal to the metal, YU’s bench will be critical this season. I expect the Macs to go 10-12 deep in almost every game this year, and anticipate that eight different players will average 14+ minutes/game.

2) The Development of Ofek

In addition to being a critical piece off of the bench this year (and perhaps starting a few games), Ofek Reef is the player to watch for in the 2019-20 season. According to Coach Steinmetz, Ofek has a high basketball IQ, and “gets it already.” The 6’1” guard is the most athletic player on the team, and throws down with the same force as Turell. He also shoots well, plays good defense, and provides energy to the Macs. The only reason he won’t be getting 30 minutes/game this year is because of the extreme talent on YU’s roster. With Simcha Halpert graduating after this season, I fully expect Ofek to start practically every game next year.

3) Close Game Struggles?

Last year, YU struggled immensely to win close games. Of course, this issue was amplified by a couple of two-point losses to close out the regular season, costing the Macs home-court advantage in the championship game. In one-score games, YU went 1-5. The argument can be made that the Macs were somewhat unlucky, as their opponents in these tight matchups hit numerous clutch shots late. That said, if the Macs want to experience greater success this year, they will need to be the ones making clutch plays when it matters most.

So what can we expect?

It is quite clear that the bar has been set high for this team. After the disappointment of last season, the Macs have an additional incentive to prove that they are legit. Due to the graduation of Farmingdale State’s top three players, the road to the NCAA Tournament will be a much easier one this year. The expectation is that the Macs return to the tournament for a second time in three seasons.

However, this team has a lot more potential than just a tournament berth. The out-of-conference games will give us a good sense of where YU stands in the hierarchy of Division III, and provide critical experience should the team get to the tournament. Regardless, the Macs absolutely have the talent to win a game in the tournament. While YU probably would probably be the underdog in such a game, it is certainly feasible. If the team gels well as the year goes on, it is not out of the realm of possibility that they make it to the Third Round.

Expectation: Trip to the NCAA DIII Tournament

Goal: Win a game in the NCAA DIII Tournament

Dream: Win multiple games in the NCAA DIII Tournament

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