It was quite the accomplishment: before ever playing his first game in a Penn uniform, Matt MacDonald was already one of the team’s captains.
When the then-junior was entrusted with that leadership role a season ago, he was not a newcomer to college basketball or the Penn program; MacDonald had spent his first two seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson before transferring to Penn and sitting out the 2015-16 season due to NCAA transfer rules.
“There was certainly an advantage to [sitting out a season],” MacDonald said. “You can see things from a different perspective; you can see the game from a different angle… While it sucked at the time, it ended up being an advantage.”
When the Buffalo-area native was able to finally take the court a season ago, he did so with a firm leadership style, one that helped guide Penn from a disastrous 0-6 start in conference play to a berth in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.
For coach Steve Donahue — who made MacDonald his very first addition to the team two months after taking over the Penn program in March 2015 — character upside was the number one reason for making MacDonald the program's first transfer addition in over a decade.
“Leadership potential was probably the number one factor in my mind,” Donahue said of his fifth-year senior. “I wanted someone to set the tone with the work ethic, in the gym extra hours — and he’s done that.”
MacDonald had also served as a captain in his sophomore season at FDU in 2014-15 — meaning that he was captaining a Division I program while the majority of Penn’s current roster was still in high school. Serving alongside MacDonald this season as captains will be senior guard Darnell Foreman and junior forward Max Rothschild.
“Anytime you’re elected anything by your peers, it’s a great honor,” MacDonald said. “But I try to look at leadership as very much a group effort.”
“Matt sets the standard. No one outworks him,” Donahue added.
MacDonald’s statistical on-court contributions were somewhat limited a season ago — after starting the first 14 games of the season, injury woes and the breakout play of younger players (notably then-freshman Ryan Betley) limited MacDonald’s playing time to just 12 total minutes over the final nine games of the season.
MacDonald’s propensity for hardcourt leadership from the sidelines is partly genetic — his father, Mike, is the head men’s basketball coach at Division II Daemen College and an acquaintance of Donahue’s.
“I know his father really well,” Donahue noted, adding that he had followed the younger MacDonald’s career since high school.
Though he finished outside the squad’s top five in total points, assists, and rebounds a season ago, Penn teammates did not hesitate to re-elect MacDonald captain, a role often reserved for the program’s marquee names. Uncertainty remains about how exactly the senior will be used during the final season of his career.
“It’s not up to me. It’s coach’s call. But I’m ready to do whatever,” MacDonald said of his playing time and positional prospects. “I’ll be ready when my number’s called — I’m certainly ready to help this team.”
And to Donahue, any on-court success would be gravy, given the almost-hyperbolic way in which he describes MacDonald’s off-the-court impact.
“If anybody’s changed the culture at this place, it’s been Matt. It hasn’t been me,” Donahue said.
“Peers in the group change the culture. And Matt did that.”