Well, a 29-1 team from an Orthodox Jewish university on the upper sliver of the borough of Manhattan aced this pop quiz as it does so much else. Observe Yeshiva’s daydream set of numbers from Friday afternoon and Saturday night: two NCAA tournament games, 204 points (distributed with absolute evenness), 75-for-119 shooting (63 percent), 26-for-45 from three-point range (57.8 percent) and none of it all that attributable to getting hot.
That’s because there’s also this: 49 assists, including 25 in the first round against Worcester Polytechnic Institute and 24 in the second round against Penn State Harrisburg along the way to Yeshiva’s first Sweet 16, coming Friday at Randolph-Macon.
“These guys share the ball,” said Elliot Steinmetz, Yeshiva’s coach, alumnus and former player (1999-2002). And while you’re wondering what must have happened to prompt such an egregious dip in assists from the first round to the second, gaze lovingly at this second-round line from 6-foot-5 senior big man Gabriel Leifer, who really, really knows how to play: 10 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists.
(Three blocks, too.)
All of it would have delighted the retinas of anybody who likes basketball more than, say, other stuff, even as so few eyes watched. Johns Hopkins University, the host, cited on Thursday three coronavirus cases in Maryland and deemed it “prudent to hold this tournament without spectators.” This prevented any appropriate accompaniment to Yeshiva’s interpretation of basketball — a string quartet would have been most apt — and it became the second such emptied-out event in the March basketball mayhem, according to the Associated Press, following a women’s game earlier Friday between Rowan and Merchant Marine.
The only attendees at Johns Hopkins were players, coaches and those with other jobs. At one point Saturday night, from the top row of the wee stands behind the Yeshiva bench, Skyline Conference Commissioner Linda Bruno, who formerly worked for the Big East and Atlantic 10, and Yeshiva Athletic Director Joe Bednarsh stood as a lonely group of two to cheer yet another Yeshiva basket.
Bednarsh then belted out a worthy joke about the play “bringing the crowd to its feet.”
Now, as No. 13 Yeshiva takes its huge season and its selflessness and its crucial humor to Ashland, Va., to play No. 3 Randolph-Macon, it appears it will pivot again: back to a certain normalcy. Regarding the practice schedule at a school that shut down classes the last half of last week after one student tested positive for the coronavirus, Bednarsh made an important distinction.
“The campus isn’t closed,” he said. “Just classes are canceled. The food service, the gym, everything else is going on. I mean, all the other sports are going on.” Classes wouldn’t be happening Monday and Tuesday anyway, because of the Purim holiday.
As of Monday, Randolph-Macon proceeded as normal for managing the game, according to a spokeswoman, while monitoring for any new guidelines from the Virginia Department of Health. The school drew a sellout 1,260 on Friday to its Crenshaw-Alumni Gym for its first-round win over Wesley, and 740 on Saturday for its second-round win over the College of New Jersey. Like other schools, Randolph-Macon helped out Yeshiva with a tip time of 2 p.m. Friday, enabling the Maccabees to finish the game and return to their hotel to observe Shabbat before sundown, with an added boost of daylight saving time’s one-hour postponement of sundown.
“People are so good about it,” Bednarsh said of other schools and scheduling. “The NCAA’s been fantastic about it. Schools in our conference are fantastic about it.”
In the event of any changes amid a shifting global story, Yeshiva will resort to its demonstrated adaptability and its humor. In Baltimore, it weathered a hotel canceling its original reservations because of Yeshiva’s intersection with the coronavirus, then an 80-minute delay in tip-off Friday while WPI got clearance from its administration to participate.
Then came one curious twist of the empty-gym experiment: the possibility that it might be easier to make free throws amid a buzzy crowd than when one voice on the other side barks instructions to his team, mid-shot. The Maccabees made a dour 9 of 16 in the second round.
“I don’t know if it’s harder,” said 6-foot-7 archer Ryan Turell, who splurged for 71 points in the two games, “but it certainly looked harder today, the way we shot it. But, yeah, we’ve got to get into the gym and practice not yelling at each other. We always yell and try to psych each other out on the free throw line. I guess we’ve got to be quiet now.”
Or, maybe not.
Either way, their helpful levity helps define them, and it was visible, audible and everywhere in the weekend path through the relative silence. At the end of a timeout mandated when Turell’s hand bled, Steinmetz asked him about his readiness, and Turell, a lanky force who appears never to have made acquaintance with any fat gram, pretended to stare down Steinmetz, mock-glowering. Near the final buzzer, players from the back end of the bench seemed to make fun of Steinmetz about his handling of a substitution situation, even kidding him as “bro.”
“So I get a lot of comments about the fact that I generally sit, all game,” Steinmetz said. “I don’t get up. I don’t yell a lot. My big thing is, I want my guys to play loose. I want them to play with poise. And if they look over and they see a frustrated coach who’s got anxiety and is yelling and screaming and getting upset at big spots in the game, even if my heart is, like, falling out of my chest in the end of a close game, all of our players can just look over and see calm. They bring that to the court. They bring whatever they see in their coach to the court. You see that in the way a lot of teams play. An energetic coach will get more energy out of his team. I like to trust my guys to bring their own energy and let them see, kind of, calmness and poise on the side. And so far that’s worked for us.”
Leifer said, “I’ve only played for Yeshiva. I played in high school, but I know that in high school we had nothing close to the type of family environment that we have now. I’ve played on teams in other years and it’s been amazing playing with them and we had a brotherhood also, but this year’s something special. We really bring the whole group together.”
Steinmetz said, “Coaching’s a little easier when you have players like this. It’s really a pleasure. These guys are selfless, on and off the court.”
That has meant 29 wins in a row since an opening loss at Occidental in Los Angeles in November, including even a weird weekend on an exhilarating course through some oddball turns.