The 7-foot, 215-pound Matthews was already impossible to miss on this small campus. Yet after leading the nation in rebounds and double doubles, the junior center has grown into Farmingdale's main attraction this side of Adventureland.
"It was a bumpy road," Matthews said. "I ended up going to one school after another. I feel right now I'm settled here. I'm not the type of guy who likes big campuses. You know everyone here. And you don't get lost going to class every day."
If the Farmingdale State men's basketball team can win two games in three days to capture the Skyline Conference Tournament title, it will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament – the program's first since 2009.
After a 20-5 regular season and second-place finish behind rival St. Joseph's (Patchogue), the madness begins Thursday when No. 2 Farmingdale State hosts No. 3 Mount St. Mary (20-6) at 8 p.m. The Skyline championship is Saturday at the higher seed.
Teammate Joshua Smith, a junior guard, was named a Skyline first-teamer this week. But so much will fall on the tall shoulders of Matthews. He's not only the conference player of the year, Rams Coach Erik Smiles called him the best player he's coached.
"Hands down, no doubt about it," Smiles said. "We've had some great ones here, but A.J. is by far the most special talent I've ever coached."
The numbers tell the story. Matthews leads the conference in scoring (22.1 points) and tops the nation with 16 rebounds per game. His 4 blocks is third in D-III and .628 field goal percentage ranks fifth.
But what really stands out are his 23 double doubles (points and rebounds) in as many starts. Not only does it lead D-III, but no other player in the county – from Division I on down – has recorded a double double in every game played.
Smiles credits his polished game backed by unreal athleticism. "He does a great job of finishing with both hands, right or left," Smiles said. "The other thing that stands out is his footwork and coordination for a 7-foot kid. That really stands out compared to other kids his size."
Matthews said his focus this season has been on the defensive end of the court. The result: Farmingdale State is one of the top five D-III teams in the nation in field goal defense and blocked shots.
"When it comes to playoffs, I just want to win," Matthews said.
Everyone on campus is excited to see where Matthews' journey takes him next. Only this time an entire school is along for the ride.
Women Earn No. 2 Seed: In the women's bracket, Farmingdale State (14-9) also earned the second seed and will host No. 3 SUNY-Old Westbury Thursday at 6 p.m. The championship is Saturday at the higher seed.
Note: Jason Molinet is an adjunct professor at Farmingdale State.