Men’s Basketball: 2020-21 Season Preview
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
By Akiva Poppers & Ari Schopf
A blank screen.
That is how Yeshiva men’s basketball head coach Elliot Steinmetz has often described the abrupt ending to last season. “It stunk, but what is there to do about it?” adds senior co-captain Gabe Leifer, describing the sudden conclusion to a historic campaign as upsetting, yet necessary. “Now it is just about either always wondering, or moving on to this season.”
It has been 11 months since the NCAA Division III Tournament was suspended due to COVID-19. With the scheduled start of the Macs’ 2020-21 season just one day away, it is an understatement to say that many of the YU faithful are excited. If we can provide any advice for Macs fans heading into the season, it would be to enjoy every moment of watching the Macs play. Many different pieces had to be worked through by those who had a hand in making this happen, and we should all be appreciative of their efforts. Enjoy the exciting ball and player movement of the offense, the toughness on defense, and the teamwork and sportsmanship that YU is known to display every game. The Macs are excited for the opportunity to get back on the court, and we can not wait to watch them play again.
2019-2020 Season Recap
It has been a while since we saw the Macs take the floor, so it is important to remember what this team accomplished last year. After dropping the first game of the season against Occidental College in California, the Macs went on an incredible 29-game winning streak, going undefeated in conference play and winning the Skyline Championship. A major factor in Yeshiva’s incredible success was the highly efficient motion offense, which led them to a Skyline Conference-best 86.7 points/game. The Macs advanced to the NCAA Tournament and put the world on notice with two dominant wins against WPI and PSU-Harrisbrug, in an empty Goldfarb Gymnasium on the campus of Johns Hopkins. YU was scheduled to face Randolph-Macon in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, but the tournament was suspended due to COVID-19. The Macs carry their streak of 29 consecutive wins into this season, and will look to continue their push to establish themselves as a perennial Division III powerhouse.
The Macs graduated six seniors from last year's squad, including two captain starters, Dani Katz and Simcha Halpert. Katz and Halpert were critical players in changing Yeshiva’s basketball culture, and turning the program into one of the best in the nation. The Macs will miss the sweet shooting of Halpert and the passing and basketball IQ of Katz, but are still expected to maintain and build upon the success of last season.
No Skyline AQ: A Short Explanation of Everything That Transpired Over the Past Few Months
While little information has been released about everything which occurred over the past few months to get us to where we are today, that is only because of the ever-changing circumstances of the situation we find ourselves in.
As of October, the Skyline Conference was working towards having conference and postseason play, beginning in mid-January. Five programs—Purchase, Farmingdale State, Old Westbury, Sarah Lawrence, and Maritime—were not on track to be able to start on time, which left the conference with seven teams. The tentative plan, therefore, was to have a 12-game schedule, with each school playing the other six twice each, and games held twice a week, on back-to-back days, against the same opponent. However, in early December, both St. Joseph’s-Brooklyn and St. Joseph’s-Long Island called off winter sports, leaving the conference with five teams who were able to play in mid-January.
At that point, the Skyline still hoped to play, likely with a schedule where each of the five teams played each other twice, and a tournament for the teams with the four best records after those eight games. However, on December 17th, Mount Saint Mary canceled winter competition, leaving only Yeshiva, Manhattanville, Merchant Marine, and Mount St. Vincent.
On December 22nd, Hoopsville broke the news that Mount St. Vincent was, at least, postponing their season. With just three Skyline teams able to start on time, and a threshold of four teams to have an Automatic Qualifier, the conference lost its AQ, and therefore any hopes for a conference season and championships. This means that, if there is an NCAA DIII Tournament this year, Yeshiva and other Skyline teams can only qualify through a Pool C (at-large) bid, which requires at least 9 games to be played, in order for consideration.
In summary, in previous years the winner of the Skyline Conference Championship automatically made the tournament, and other Skyline teams had the opportunity to qualify based on the merits of their regular season play (no team has been selected for an at-large bid from the conference since St. Joseph's-Long Island in 2012). This year there will be no championship, and the only way a Skyline team can make the tournament, if there is one, is based on the merits of their regular season play.
At just 10 games (at present), this year’s schedule is certainly shorter than usual, but not any less challenging. The Macs open the season on the road against Moravian College on February 2nd, and 8 days later are set to travel to face Division II powerhouse, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Yeshiva’s home opener will be held on February 13th, against Merchant Marine. The Macs are only scheduled to face 3 Skyline Conference teams: Merchant Marine, Manhattanville, and Sarah Lawrence, and play each team twice; once at home and once on the road. The other two games will be played against Saint Joseph (CT). The Blue Jays are led by legendary Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, who, after spending the majority of his career with the DI UConn Huskies, came out of retirement to become the first head coach of Saint Joseph’s men’s basketball program. Calhoun has won the Division I NCAA Tournament Championship 3 times over his illustrious career, so these two games will definitely be ones to circle on the calendar. The Macs will play the Blue Jays once at home and once on the road, on February 27th and March 1st, respectively.
To view the schedule, check out our men’s basketball page.
**Please note that dates, times, and opponents on YU’s schedule are subject to change. Fans will not be allowed to attend any contests held in the Max Stern Athletic Center, but we will be broadcasting all home games on MacsLive.com.
The Macs welcome 10 new players to a team that has very high expectations. Many of these players will not see many minutes this year, but those who do will need to earn them. The Macs offense is designed to be a well-oiled machine, but it requires a strong understanding of how to run it, and these new players will need to demonstrate that early on if they want to be awarded with extended minutes on the floor. The Macs are returning their two All-American stars; Gabe Leifer and Ryan Turell. This duo is as good as any in Division III, and as long as they are on the court, the Macs are a team to be reckoned with. The Macs also return the 2019-2020 Skyline Conference Rookie of the Year in Ofek Reef. Expect Reef to have an even bigger role on this team in his sophomore year. Despite losing Simcha Halpert, the Macs still have younger brother Eitan, who will look to continue his late season success of last year and fill the void his sibling left. For more information on Yeshiva’s roster, be sure to check out our full roster preview.
What to Look Out For
Eitan Halpert’s ascent: Towards the end of last season we saw Eitan Halpert step up in a big way for the Macs, playing a pivotal role in some of their most important games. Halpert’s rapid ascent culminated with him working his way into the starting lineup for both NCAA Tournament contests, scoring a combined 32 points on 12/19 shooting in Baltimore. Now a co-captain, Eitan can often be seen in practice coaching up his fellow teammates. Look for Halpert to continue his progress and become a critical cog on both ends of the floor with his floor spacing, shooting, and ball pressuring abilities.
Fast learners: There are 10 new faces for the Macs this year, at all ages and sizes. The one player who sticks out is graduate student Samuel Merkin, who comes to YU after having attended Columbia University. Merkin, whose high basketball IQ and overall intelligence has been evident early on, could prove to be a perfect fit, and be a difference-maker for YU during his time in Washington Heights. With a shortened season, the new guys will need to get adjusted quickly, step up, and make a meaningful contribution in year 1. Keep an eye out to see which players Coach Steinmetz trusts this year, especially with less time than usual for the non-returners to prove themselves.
Rusty: The Macs have not played a competitive basketball game in nearly a year, and with the team practicing in pods, they haven’t had any scrimmages, either. It will be especially interesting to see how the offense looks, given that YU’s motion relies on rhythm and flow, which will most certainly be negatively impacted due to the prolonged break. With a shortened season, the Macs cannot afford to get off to a slow start if, should there be a tournament this year, they want to be in the conversation for a Pool C bid come early March.
What to Expect
If there is one thing which has remained constant since March, it is to expect the unexpected. With that said, Yeshiva’s stance has been straightforward. As Coach Steinmetz simply stated, “we can do empty gyms, just get us a ball and an opponent. We just want to play ball.”
As elaborated upon by D3hoops.com, there are long odds of a DIII tournament this season. Regardless of whether there is a tournament, YU’s intention is to play as many games as they can, within reason. “If the tournament does get called off,” Steinmetz told D3hoops.com’s Ryan Scott, “we will still play games, but may not make those six hour trips we might [otherwise make] if they could help us qualify” (at time of publication, there were no road games on YU’s schedule more than three hours away). With the majority of DIII schools in the NY-NJ area sitting out the season, and most of the rest playing conference-only schedules, finding and securing games has been all but easy. It is a testament to the hard work of YU Athletics that there are 10 scheduled contests.
So what should Macs fans expect? Expect some fun basketball. Sit back, relax, and enjoy.