- Big Man on Campus -
Article from D3hoops.com, Brian Lester, email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Blester1993.
If you haven't heard of AJ Matthews, you're not alone. But you should know the name.
It's certainly hard not to take notice. The junior stands 7 feet tall and has had a double-double in 21 consecutive games, the most in the nation. Had he not been sick in the first two games with the flu, my guess is that total would have been at 23 and counting.
Matthews is a straight-up nightmare for opponents. Teams will double and sometimes triple-team him in the paint, hoping the defensive strategy pays off against a player who bounced around at a couple of junior college programs before finding a home in Farmingdale.
The thing is, Matthews is smart enough to know that if two or three guys are guarding him, a couple of his teammates are going to be open somewhere on the floor. And if the defense is able to switch in time, Matthews just ends up with the ball again. It's why he is pouring in 22.4 points per game and grabbing 16 rebounds.
His ability to make the right decision is also part of the reason why the Rams have two other players in double figures. Joshua Smith is clicking for 15.4 points per outing and Dyshaun Flournoy is pumping in 12.7 ppg.
It's hardly a surprise that the Rams are 18-2 overall, 14-2 in the Skyline Conference and riding the high of a four-game win streak.
"At the beginning of the year, I wasn't used to being the go-to guy," Matthews said. "I've learned to get more comfortable in my role. If I face a double-team, I'll try to kick it back out and someone is usually open because teams are so focused on me. It opens things up for my teammates, and they can also get it back to me if they need to."
You would think that as tall as Matthews is, there would have been a magnet pulling him toward basketball at a young age.
Turns out, that wasn't the case.
"No one in my family had played basketball and I didn't know anything about the game. I couldn't dribble or shoot," Matthews said. "I was a kid who just liked playing outside, you know, riding your bike and other stuff like that. I had no interest in basketball."
Everything changed one day in high school inside an empty gymnasium. All Matthews was doing was shooting the ball around. He never expected to draw a crowd.
"The coach kept asking me as a freshman if I would play. I kept telling him no," Matthews said. "One day in the summer, I was shooting around by myself and the coach noticed me. The players from the team came in, too, and we started playing basketball. I did pretty well."
Well enough, in fact, to play part of his sophomore season. Academic problems derailed the other part of the season, but Matthews got his act straigtened out in the classroom and finished his high school career strong at Van Arsdale High School.
The Brooklyn native graduated in 2007 and attended a junior college in Tallahassee. He wasn't eligible to play and moved on to take summer courses at Garden City Community College in Kansas.
Finally, during the 2009-10 season, he played junior college ball at Monroe Community College in the Bronx, averaging 13 points and seven rebounds per game. He also blocked 83 shots.
A year later, he took his talents to Broward Community College in Florida and earned Southern Conference Player of the Year honors. He clicked for 19 points per outing and grabbed 11 rebounds per game. His next stop appeared to be a Division I school. He was originally signed on to play at Farleigh Dickinson but couldn't go because he didn't have his associate's degree. He also didn't have enough transfer credits to go Division II.
It was either Division III or nowhere. Matthews ended up finding a home at Farmingdale State.
"Out of high school, I felt like I had to travel around and see different places," Matthews said. "But I eventually missed being closer to home. I wanted to play at a school where I could still be away but be close to my family, too. Farmingdale State has been a good fit for me. I've settled in and I love it."
He has certainly made the most of his latest opportunity. In a short period of time, Matthews has the school record for blocks in a season (87), shattering the old mark by 48, and has grabbed a school-record 336 rebounds this year. The old mark was 329.
He also owns single-game marks for rebounds (25) and blocks (9).
Yet, as dominant has he has been, when you talk to Matthews, he is quick to deflect a lot of credit to his teammates.
"I'm just playing my role," Matthews said. "We all have a role on this team and because we have learned to accept those roles, we have been successful. There are a lot of good players on this team and knowing they are capable of stepping up on any given night makes things easier for me."
Matthews has also stayed focused in the classroom.
"Coach has given me a lot of help and he stays on me about getting my work done," Matthews said. "I know that if I want to play the game I love and have a chance to be successful, I have to work hard in school. I keep that in my mind every single day."
Matthews would love a shot at the NBA, or at the very least, a chance to play basketball overseas once his career is done at Farmingdale State.
For now, his focus is on helping the Rams compete for a conference championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
"We all came into this season with the mind-set that we want to win a championship," Matthews said. "We know have the talent to achieve that goal. The big thing for us is to trust in each other. If we play well offensively and play hard on defense for 40 minutes, on top of working well as a team, we can accomplish our goals. We feel like we are headed in the right direction."