After every home game for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, Montez Mathis joins his teammates in the locker room underneath the RAC in Piscataway, N.J., for their postgame meeting with the coaching staff. And once those meetings end, the freshman guard is back out on the court greeting young fans, signing autographs and posing for photos.
Mathis, a Baltimore native and John Carroll graduate, could head into the showers and go home. But he remembers a time when he attended Lake Clifton games and followed former standouts such as Will Barton, who went to Memphis and plays for the Denver Nuggets, and Josh Selby, a cousin who attended Kansas and played for the Memphis Grizzlies.
“They write me a lot and all that,” Mathis said of the youth at Scarlet Knights games. “They just tell me that they’re going to be at the games and all that. So I just try to make sure that I get a chance to see them after the game and talk to them a little bit because I know that will probably make their day. It made my day when I was younger and used to go to college and high school games and I looked up to older guys and they gave me pictures and stuff. I just want to do the same.”
Mathis’ fan club has been growing since he arrived at Rutgers. After coming off the bench for the first eight games of the season, Mathis has started in the last 22 games and has played 23.2 minutes per game, which ranks third on the team.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Mathis also ranks third among the Scarlet Knights (14-16 overall and 7-13 in the Big Ten) this winter in scoring at 8.7 points per game, double-digit outputs at 13, and games in which he led the team in that category at six. He also ranks second in dunks at 14, is tied for third in steals at 21, and ranks fourth in assists at 32.
We’ve put him in a lot of tough situations, but he’s really a tough kid, and he’s coachable.
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell on freshman Montez Mathis
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Coach Steve Pikiell acknowledged Mathis has progressed a little more rapidly than he anticipated, but pointed out that he earned the starting role.
“He’s done a great job of learning on the fly,” he said. “We’ve put him in a lot of tough situations, but he’s really a tough kid, and he’s coachable. I love that part of it, and I think his best days are ahead of him. I think he will continue to improve in league play, and I think with a great offseason and now him having lived it for a year, he’s going to be a really good player for us for a long time.”
A consensus four-star recruit by 247Sports, Rivals and ESPN, Mathis was ranked by Scout as the top overall recruit from Maryland in 2018 because of his scoring prowess. During one seven-game stretch against Big Ten competition, he scored in double figures six times.
“It’s totally different,” he said of producing offense at the college level. “Guys are much bigger and much stronger and much quicker. You’ve just got to know when to go and to let the game come to you and try not to force anything.”
Mathis has found success at scoring despite shooting only 37.4 percent from the floor and 23.9 percent from beyond the three-point line. He said improving his range will be a top priority in the offseason.
“It’s something I’m not happy with, but it’s also something I can control, too, by taking good shots and working on my 3-point shot in the offseason so that I can come back in as a much better 3-point shooter,” he said. “So it’s something that I can control.”
If Mathis’ offensive numbers have dipped, his defensive abilities have improved. That’s not to say he was a liability when he joined Rutgers, but Pikiell now feels more than comfortable asking Mathis to shadow some of the top guards in the Big Ten.
On Jan. 12, Minnesota junior Amir Coffey scored 29 points on 10-for-14 shooting in the Golden Gophers’ 88-70 rout of Rutgers, but dropped to eight points in a 4-for-12 effort in a 68-64 loss to the Scarlet Knights on Feb. 24. On Feb. 16, Iowa junior Jordan Bohannon compiled 18 points on 5-for-11 shooting in a 71-69 win for the Hawkeyes, but missed eight of 12 shots for 15 points in an 86-72 setback Saturday.
“Every team in this league has a big-time guard, and he’s had to guard them all,” Pikiell said. “I knew he could score. That’s what he’s done his whole life. But 50 percent of the game is on the other side of the floor, and I think he’s done a really unbelievable job on that side of the floor.”
Mathis said he has embraced the coaching staff’s urging to become a better defender.
“It’s been challenging a lot, but I like it,” he said. “I like everything about it. I don’t want to be labeled as just a scorer. I want to be someone that can do everything – rebound, defend, get my teammates better and be able to score the ball. Anything to help the team win, I want to do.”
Mathis’ desire to help his teammates extends off the court. In the suite that he shares with fellow rookie Ron Harper Jr., Mathis is the type to clean the kitchen on his own and gently chide Harper when his room gets too messy.
But Harper, the son of former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers guard Ron Harper Sr., praised Mathis for helping him get over a 3-point shooting slump that plagued him through the first 12 games.
“I remember in the beginning of the season, I couldn’t get a 3 to fall for anything, but Montez always just told me to keep shooting,” he said. “He would encourage me to get into the gym and get in my jump shots. And it did come back to me, and part of the credit goes to Montez because he was always there by my side when I needed some encouragement. So I really appreciate that from him.”
As Rutgers heads into the Big Ten tournament, Mathis will likely have to wait until next year for his next chance to greet young fans at the RAC. And Pikiell said he appreciates that aspect of his young charge.
“The young kids in this community have embraced him,” he said. “Because he’s so humble and because he’s one of those kids that just works and doesn’t say a lot but does a lot, when he shares that with the younger kids who come to our games, I just love that. That’s symbolic of who he is, and he’s honored. He signs every autograph, he takes a picture with every kid and he’s almost humbled by those experiences.”