Matthew Schner never expected to be playing college basketball in 2022.
After graduating from Grandview Prep in 2017, the versatile guard from Boca Raton, Fla., embarked on what he presumed to be a four-year career at Emory.
But, just several weeks into his freshman year, Schner suffered a broken foot during a preseason workout and subsequently had to undergo season-ending surgery. While he was given a medical redshirt (the process by which the NCAA provides an injured athlete with another year of eligibility), having to be a spectator was its own form of pain and suffering.
“Looking back on it, it was one of the bigger challenges I’ve had in my life because at that point, a couple weeks in, you haven’t gotten super close to the guys around you yet,” says Schner, whose father played college basketball at Northwestern.
“You haven’t been in those locker room settings a whole lot yet, so it’s hard to even rely on people to help you do little things. I came in with a class of seven freshmen, so you see the rest of these guys practicing and playing games and you’re sitting there watching it. In hindsight, it was great for me. It was able to humble me and it pushed me to work harder.”
Already the proverbial gym rat, Schner pushed himself even harder going into the 2018-19 season, one in which he was named a Jewish Sports Review First Team All-American, en route to leading Division III Emory to the first of three consecutive University Athletic Association (UAA) titles.
Of course, the three-peat didn’t occur over three consecutive years. The pandemic truncated the 2019-20 season (there was no NCAA tourney following the completion of the regular season) and wiped out the entire 2020-21 season.
Without the chance to play college hoops, Schner took a gap year and worked full-time at an insurance company while finding time for conditioning and playing pick-up games at elementary schools.
Last November, Emory’s basketball teams were finally able to resume competition. But, unlike their Division I counterparts, who were accustomed to playing in empty gyms during the previous season, Schner and his teammates had to adjust to the ubiquitous silence.
“When we got to a certain point this year where we were given the green light to practice and play games, yeah, we would have loved to have had fans in the stands for more than we did, but honestly it was such a joy to be able to get back and be doing that,” acknowledges Schner, whose game-high 26 points during a 91-74 win at NYU in February earned him special recognition by the Jewish Sports Heritage Association. “When you haven’t done it for a year and a half, you don’t realize how special it is.”
During Emory’s final three regular season home games and two NCAA tourney tilts — in the latter, they were eliminated by Wabash — sizable crowds turned out to watch Schner, who entered this season as the school’s all-time leader in three-point field goal percentage.
Yet, despite averaging 23.5 points per game this past year, in large part because of his lights-out perimeter shooting, Coach Jason Zimmerman is quick to point out that he doesn’t “think that [3-point shooting] is [Schner’s] biggest strength. I think his biggest strength is just his IQ and also how he leads. He is so well-rounded and can score in so many different ways. He’s exceeded all expectations.”
Perhaps even more impressive than the 6’4” junior’s blistering shooting is his endurance. College basketball games are 40 minutes long and Schner has averaged a whopping 38 minutes per contest.
“We’ve thought about it [the minutes played per game] a lot as a staff,” acknowledges Zimmerman. “Matt was in such good shape because of the work that he has put in. We thought about it, but it was never an issue. I thought he could play 80 minutes a night.”
Schner still has one more year of eligibility left — thanks to the freshman redshirt season and COVID gap year — even though he will be graduating this spring. It is quite possible that he may finish his college basketball career elsewhere, such as at a Division I school.
“He could definitely play at the Division I level and play meaningful minutes,” says Zimmerman. “He could be an effective player on both ends of the court.
“We’re trying to get him back for one more year, but we’ll see how that works.”
Understandably, Schner feels ambivalent. On one hand, he still has hopes of playing professionally overseas (although the number of leagues has diminished due to the pandemic), for which exposure at the D-I level would be invaluable. But he also feels loyal to Emory and the city of Atlanta, his home for the past half-decade.
“The amount of support that I’ve gotten from teammates and people throughout the Emory community and definitely our coaching staff has been really special. That’s what makes it so hard for me to think about leaving. I think I’ve helped elevate what Emory basketball is and I take great pride in that.
“This is my home, wherever I end up.”