Emmitt Matthews Jr. proved he can be a giant killer at the end of his freshman season.
Matthews compiled the most memorable night of his career thus far last March at the Big 12 tournament, scoring 28 points in an upset over Texas Tech and out-dueling eventual NBA lottery pick Jarrett Culver.
Texas Tech wouldn’t lose again until the national championship game when it fell to Virginia, 85-77.
With summer practices wrapping up this week, WVU head coach Bob Huggins has reason to believe Matthews’ stunning night in Kansas City is only the start of a productive Mountaineer career.
“I would say today he’s our most improved guy,” said Huggins. “He’s more aggressive, he has gotten stronger. You look at him, he’s much stronger than what he was, he may have grown a little bit, and he really wants to be good. I think that’s the biggest thing. He’s a guy who puts a lot of time in and wants to be good.”
Matthews confirmed Monday that he has added weight during the offseason and that his body is still adjusting, but he hopes the extra weight will allow him to be more physical and versatile in the post.
Even though forwards Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe will likely see the bulk of the minutes down low this year, Huggins indicated that Matthews could play at the four this season — a task that was much more daunting for him as a freshman.
“That’s probably where I struggled at the most, being able to box the bigger guys out,” said Matthews. “They’d get the rebound, so I had to find ways to get around them and get my own rebounds.”
Matthews hasn’t just built up his strength since last season. He said his confidence is growing, too.
Last year, Matthews focused on earning minutes. Now with a year under his belt, he’s focusing on winning.
“I just wanted to learn, come in with open ears and just find my way,” said Matthews. “Now I’m just out here playing, having fun and I feel like I’m back at the confidence I need to be at.”
Matthews admitted he grew frustrated at times last season as he struggled to find his role in the team. Then, something changed, and he ended the season by logging at least 20 minutes in 11 of West Virginia’s final 12 games.
The change? Matthews said he started having fun.
“After that, everything kind of went smooth for me,” said Matthews. “It took me a while to get used to that. You’re out practicing, getting on the treadmill is not fun, doing all the things that we do is not fun, but learning to find the fun things in all that stuff, that’s what I [needed] to do. When I started to get on the court, now defense is fun, getting rebounds is fun, because now I’m gonna get buckets off rebounds and little things like that.”
Matthews’ late season success was a great sign for him and for his head coach. In Huggins’ mind, a guy who wants to be good doesn’t settle for just a taste of success. He uses it for motivation.
“When you play and you see the results — the fruits of your labor, so to speak — it kind of energizes you a little bit more,” said Huggins. “I think that’s where he is right now.”