Matt Cerruti (above, in 2017) will make the transition to Division I hoops after spending the last four years at Division II Lock Haven. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
If you’d told Matt Cerruti when he was a 10th grader at Lower Moreland that he would one day be a Division I basketball player, he would have liked to believe you...but he wouldn’t have.
“I would have probably been like, ‘I wish, but there’s no chance,’” he said by phone Wednesday afternoon. “At that point in time, obviously that was the goal...but it didn’t seem really realistic.”
Six years later, Cerruti’s Division I dreams finally came true.
The 6-foot-4 sharpshooter, who saw what would have been his senior year at Lock Haven cancelled due to the COVID pandemic, made the decision to try and jump up a level as a grad transfer and his bet on himself paid off as he committed to the University at Albany on Wednesday.
He’s the first pickup for a new Albany coaching staff with heavy Philly ties: head coach Dwayne Killings was a Temple assistant from 2011-16, while assistant coach Matt Griffin, his first hire, is a St. Joe’s Prep grad who was just head coach at Roman Catholic for the last five years.
“I’ve always heard great things about (Griffin) just through being in the Catholic League, he’s a Philly guy, so it’s pretty easy to make that connection with him just talking, and then Coach Killings, when he was at Temple my older brother was the manager of their basketball team for a year [...] he had great things to say about (Killings),” Cerruti said. “They made me feel like a part of their family and their future right away, which is exactly what I was looking for.”
Albany, which plays in the America East Conference, has only been a Division I program since 1999-2000. Under previous head coach Will Brown (2002-21), the Great Danes made five NCAA Tournament appearances (2006-07; 2013-15) and won 20+ games five times, but were only 7-9 (6-6 AEast) this year and hadn’t had a winning season in three years.
Since that sophomore year of high school, where he was a solid piece for a strong Lions squad that only lost two games, Cerruti’s stock has been steadily rising. The first major move came when he left Lower Moreland for Archbishop Wood, taking a big step up in competition from the Bicentennial Athletic Conference to the Philadelphia Catholic League.
He arrived at Wood just hoping to be able to keep up with a program that was at the time led by future Army standout Tommy Funk at point guard, with several other Division I prospects on the roster, including 7-footer Seth Pinkney and talented sophomore Tyree Pickron. His classmates included Collin Gillespie, a future Villanova standout, but Gillespie wasn’t the biggest name on the Vikings’ roster just yet.
“To the kids at Lower Moreland, the PCL schools were like NBA teams, they were so good, the players were so talented,” Cerruti said. “When I first went to Wood, I was thinking maybe I can’t even play here, so we’ll see how that goes.
“Once I started to get comfortable and realized I could play at Wood, I started to believe that I could play at the highest levels of basketball, and it clicked.”
Cerutti had a strong career at Lock Haven, scoring over 1200 points in his three seasons. (Photo: Zach Hommey/Lock Haven Athletics)
Cerruti averaged 9.6 ppg as a junior, according to hoops historian Ted Silary, though the Vikings weren’t much to write home about, going 14-10 overall (6-7 PCL). The whole program — Cerruti included — took a massive step forward the following year, going 28-3 and winning the program’s first Catholic League and PIAA state championships.
Gillespie rocketed to fame that year and Pickron was the second-leading scorer, but Cerruti (12.0 ppg) was a major part of that success, chipping in 15 points in the PCL championship game against Neumann-Goretti and scoring in double figures in all but one of their six district/state playoff games. What wasn’t evident from the box scores was how much more fluid of an athlete Cerruti had become, improving his ability to score off the bounce and defend high-level wings.
“By senior year I thought he was definitely a Division I player. I still feel a few people missed the boat on him,” Wood coach John Mosco said, jokingly adding, “hopefully he has a good year [at Albany] and makes me look good.”
Cerruti averaged 10.9 ppg as a freshman at Lock Haven, which plays in the competitive Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), hitting 39.4% of his 3-pointers. That average jumped to 20 ppg (and 43.1% shooting from deep) as a sophomore, and he averaged 16.3 ppg as a junior while still making 49.4% overall and 46.2% from 3-point range.
He’d planned on finishing out his career for Mike Nestor this year and exploring professional opportunities afterwards, but the PSAC cancelled its season shortly before Thanksgiving. Knowing he was going to be finishing up his LHU degree in psychology in the spring, he decided to enter the transfer portal and see if he could make the jump for one final year of college hoops.
“I talked to coach Mosco and coach Chris [Roantree] from Wood, and they both said the same thing: if you want to do it, go for it, and we’ll support you,’” Cerruti said. “So it was nice to have them in my corner.”
Before Killings got the Albany job, Cerruti had been hearing from low-to-mid-majors from across the country, all of whom were interested in his outside shooting ability. But once the Great Danes’ staff got involved last week, it became clear he’d found the right spot. What he’s still yet to know is what most of the Albany roster will look like, with a number of the Great Danes’ former players still in the transfer portal as they decide whether to stay or go; like many teams in college basketball this offseason, the Albany roster is sure to look much different from last year to the next.
Cerruti said he’s looking forward to getting up to Albany’s campus this summer, excited for what should be a relatively normal 2021-22 season after the craziness of the last year. There would be one more thing to put the cherry on top of his Division I experience, though it’s unclear how likely of a scenario it is: Villanova vs. Albany, Cerruti vs. Gillespie.
That would take not only Gillespie deciding to return to college for one more year after his MCL injury last month, but of course a scheduling agreement between Killings and Jay Wright.
“I mean, can you imagine? That’d be great,” Cerruti said. “We mess around with each other enough, we’re both ultra-competitive, we’ll golf in the summer, we’ll go to chip-and-putts and get into serious arguments over that, so I can’t imagine what the arguments would be if we played in a college game.”