By: Alan Zeitlin
When the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team lost generational talents Ryan Turell and Gabriel Leifer, it was understood that the expectations would not be an undefeated season and an NCAA Division III championship run.
Nobody could fully step into the shoes of Turell, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard/small forward who holds the college’s record with 2,158 career points and the most in one season, notching 786 last year, or Leifer, a 6-foot-6 power forward/center who was fifth all-time with 1,624 points. Leifer also dished 657 assists and grabbed 1,254 rebounds in his career.
Yet sophomore Zevi Samet, in his first year with the Maccabees, is quickly carving his own legacy. The 6-foot-1 shooter was on fire with a video game-like performance in a recent win against St. Joseph’s University, connecting on 11 of 15 three-pointers and scoring 40 points. Two games earlier, he hit seven from behind the arc and scored 38 points in his home debut, showcasing different aspects of his offensive arsenal—from curling to hit a three from the left elbow, to a runner, to a three from the right corner.
“I guess it comes down to practice,” Samet told JNS. “I practice those shots over and over again. So, when you see the ball go in the hoop in the game, you see that all the hard work paid off. It’s a good feeling to hit those shots.”
Speaking of practice, watch here as he makes an eye-popping 108 out of 116 threes from the top of the key.
Samet leads the YU team in scoring, averaging 21.7 points per game. He has also been named Skyline Conference Player of the Week several times. The Macs are 6-2 in the conference, with an overall record of 8-7.
Asked if there is pressure to follow up the performance of a team that was nationally ranked, had a historic 50-game win streak that was snapped last season and garnered national media attention, Samet said the current squad is focusing on what is in front of them.
“At the end of the day, what they did was unbelievable, and they made the program special,” he said . “It’s life and you move on. If you worry that you have to be exactly like them, it’s impossible to play well. This is a new team. We’re here to play ball, have fun and do our best. Where it takes us, it takes us. Hopefully that’s a great place, but we’re not coming feeling pressure that we have to hit a certain mark. We are our own team and we’re gonna try to go as far as we can.”
Macs Coach Elliot Steinmetz is not surprised by Samet’s scoring prowess.
“Yes, we expected it,” Steinmetz told JNS via email. “We recruited him to be here as a shooter and scorer for us. Now we get to watch him continue to develop in that role. This is just the beginning. He’s young and talented and has a ways to go.”
Samet is from Monsey, N.Y., and starred in high school at Teaneck, N.J.-based Torah Academy of Bergen County. While he was a student at the Yeshivat Reishit in Israel during his gap year, Samet played two and a half hours of basketball in the morning after early prayers when the sun came up. He said part of him wanted to stay in Israel to study there for a second year, but that he wanted to make an impact and a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name)—and the best place he thought he could do so was YU.
He wears a black velvet yarmulke on the court, and uses clips to make sure it stays on.
“But my hair’s not super long, so sometimes it does come off,” he said. “That’s the kind of yarmulke I like to wear when I’m not playing ball, so why should I change it?”
His uncle, a YU rosh yeshiva (head of school) named Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, attends some of his games.
The current YU team is clearly undersized without Leifer, who at 6-foot-6 had a chiseled physique that enabled him to seem bigger, and 6-foot-10 Jordan Armstrong, who graduated. Yet 6-foot-4 junior Matan Zucker hustles, plays great defense and tries to stifle taller centers. He’s averaging 8.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.
“He has a good heart and puts his body on the line for us,” Samet said of Zucker. “He’s not as tall as all the other guys, but he’s not getting pushed by them and he’s trying his best. He’s a leader on the court and has made big plays.”
The coach also praised the big man.
“Matan’s efforts are tremendous,” Steinmetz said. “We never feel uncomfortable being outsized, due to Matan’s presence in the game. His fierceness and physicality make up for a ton of lost inches.”
Off the court, Samet enjoys his morning Talmud classes and is improving his Hebrew-language skills. Asked whether he might want to play professional basketball in Israel one day, he said it’s a possibility.
“Right now, I’m focusing on this season,” Samet said.