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Junior guard Matt MacDonald earned the title of captain before ever setting foot on the court for Penn.

Credit: Zachary Sheldon

It sounds paradoxical: Matt MacDonald is, at the same time, a veteran, a captain and a first-year player.

That is, of course, due to the fact that the junior guard is a transfer. After playing his first two college seasons at Farleigh Dickenson in northern New Jersey, the Buffalo native made the switch to Penn in May 2015 before sitting out last season because of transfer rules.

“Coming here was a combination of a lot of things, both basketball- and academics-wise,” MacDonald said. “Coming to Penn was the perfect fit. It has the best academics in the world.”

MacDonald announced his decision to join the team just two months after Steve Donahue was officially unveiled as Jerome Allen’s successor, making him the first player added to the team by the now-second-year coach.

“Once [Penn] called, I knew I wanted to come here. It was just a matter of time,” MacDonald said. “Things have been great with all the coaches from the start. I’m glad I made the move.”

“I knew that he’d be a real leader. He knows how hard you gotta work,” Donahue noted. “He knows how to go about his business, and he makes sure that others do the same.”

Donahue added that, as a 30-year friend of MacDonald’s father, he had an eye on the guard since his high school days. Despite not making a recruiting effort for MacDonald as Boston College’s head coach (his job from 2010-14), Donahue acknowledged he never took his eyes off of the potential Quaker.

“Matt was kind of a late bloomer. He got stronger — he used to be thinner,” Donahue said, adding that MacDonald almost took a postgraduate year at a prep school before deciding at the last minute to attend FDU. “If he had taken that year … He would have had a lot of offers.”

After starting all but one of 60 games across his two seasons with the Knights, MacDonald was forced to sit out the entirety of the 2015-16 season, as mandated by NCAA transfer rules. Though not being able to take the court with his teammates was a burden, the now-fourth-year junior admits that a year away from the action was a valuable learning experience.

“It was really tough. The worst part was that I was perfectly healthy — I thought I could help the team, but there was nothing I could do,” MacDonald said. “But you learn to appreciate the game more, with all those hours in the gym … I feel like I’ve improved in a lot of different ways.”

And, in the very early going of 2016-17, MacDonald seems to be integrating well with his new teammates: he has started both of Penn’s games so far, notching a respectable nine points, 12 rebounds and four assists in 53 minutes.

But most importantly, MacDonald was named a captain before the season, a testament to his leadership role. Serving alongside senior guard Matt Howard, MacDonald managed to earn the honor before ever actually stepping on the court in a Penn uniform.

“It was his teammates — they voted for him,” Donahue said. “I wasn’t surprised; he’s the one that everyone looks to.”

MacDonald is one of three new faces — alongside transfer junior guard Caleb Wood and prized freshman forward AJ Brodeur — to start both games for the quakers thus far. And in Donahue’s eyes, new blood in the program is just what the doctor ordered.

“When we haven’t won a championship in 10 years, nobody can rest and think that they deserve a spot. They understand that, Matt and everyone else,” Donahue said.

“This is about building a champion. That’s the mission.”