Mathieu proves all his doubters wrong

DeAndre Mathieu has been a key cog on the Gophers basketball team.

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu dribbles at the game against Penn State on Sunday.

Holly Peterson

Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu dribbles at the game against Penn State on Sunday.

Jace Frederick

DeAndre Mathieu no longer wanted to play basketball.

He was a walk-on freshman at Morehead State who played sparingly and wasn’t making much of an impact. What pushed him away, though, was far graver than those things.

In the middle of his freshman season, Mathieu’s best friend Phillip “Tookie” Stanford committed suicide, rocking Mathieu’s world. He missed three games when he went home for the funeral, but it could have been more.

“I didn’t want to play anymore,” he said. “I lost my best friend who loved the game just as much as I did. … [I said], ‘I’m just going to quit playing basketball and just stay home.’”

Mathieu said his family helped him through the struggle, though, and convinced him to return.

Now, two years later, Mathieu is the Gophers’ floor general and has Minnesota just one or two wins from an NCAA tournament berth.

“I don’t know where we’d be without him,” Gophers head coach Richard Pitino said. “We’d be in a lot of trouble … that’s for sure.”

No height, no offers

Mathieu was hardly recruited out of high school. He only got scholarship offers from a few Division II programs.

Standing at 5 feet 9 inches, Mathieu had many doubters — including, for a while, himself.

Mathieu eventually accepted a role as preferred walk-on at Morehead State.

“[He] told me he loved the game of basketball and was willing to work as hard as he possibly could to earn a scholarship,” former Morehead State head coach Donnie Tyndall said.

Tyndall and Mathieu struck a deal. If Mathieu finished in the top eight on the team in minutes played, he’d earn a scholarship.

While Mathieu started and played major minutes toward the end of the season, he finished with the ninth-most minutes played.

Tyndall did not offer him a scholarship.

Tyndall cited Mathieu’s minutes, his momentary desire to quit basketball and a lack of production as factors in his decision.

“It was too big of a risk,” he said, adding that he told Mathieu that if he played as a walk-on for another season, he’d earn a scholarship for his final two years.

Mathieu didn’t want his mom to keep having to help pay for school, so he decided to head to Central Arizona.

“I figured that if I could go to junior college and just play decent … I could at least make it back to that mid-major level,” Mathieu said.

He did much more than that.

Central Arizona

Central Arizona granted Mathieu the freedom he never had at Morehead State.

“I had to make plays for us to win there,” he said. “I really just got to show off what I could do.”

As the go-to guy, Mathieu scored about 17 points and tacked on 6.1 rebounds and nearly 6.5 assists per game — good for a first-team All-America selection.

“Nobody, one-on-one, could slow him down all year,” Central Arizona head coach JD Pollock said. “As soon as he hit the hardwood he just never quit running, never quit working hard.”

Mathieu’s success drew attention from UCLA, Memphis, Ole Miss and the Gophers, among others. His final choice came down to Minnesota and Mathieu’s home-state Memphis squad.

Mathieu said the biggest factor in his decision was his comfort level with Pitino.

“I really liked him as a person,” Mathieu said. “When I got here, the guys … told me, ‘You’ll want to come play for him.’ … I just decided this is where I wanted to be.”

Mathieu and Pitino

It was Feb. 16, 2014. The Gophers trailed at halftime in a pivotal game at Northwestern.

Mathieu had been very average in the game, but out of the break, the guard looked the part of a scoring assassin.

He scored 10 of Minnesota’s first 14 points after the break and led the Gophers to a 54-48 win.

Pitino sparked Mathieu.

“He’s good at getting me going,” Mathieu said, “even though he shouldn’t have to.”

Pitino said Mathieu is “fun to yell at.” He said he yells at Mathieu because the team needs him.

“He’s good at letting me know that even though he’s hollering at me, don’t listen to the tone, listen to the message,” Mathieu said.

Pitino has had to figure out how hard he can push Mathieu without negatively affecting him.

Mathieu was struggling in the middle of the Big Ten slate, when he was forced to man the backcourt with Andre Hollins out with an ankle injury.

Pitino asked Mathieu if he was hindering his play. He was.

“I said, ‘… I will take it easier on you,” Pitino said. “He had enough to deal with besides dealing with a crazy … coach.”

Pitino and Mathieu seem to understand each other. As the head coach and starting point guard, they have to.

“I’m just glad I came to play for him, because he really gets me going,” Mathieu said. “He has the ultimate confidence in me.”

Fearless

In practice a few weeks ago, Mathieu suffered from cramps. Pitino said the guard easily could have been done for the day.

That’s not who he is, though. He wanted to get back out on the floor as quickly as possible.

“He was dying to get back to practice, like the cameras were on him,” Pitino said.

That toughness and passion is evident to his teammates.

“He has the passion to be on the floor,” senior guard Austin Hollins said. “When you have a point guard out there that wants to win … that’s really important.”

Though he’s small, Mathieu often finds himself in the paint, working among the trees. He’ll get his shot blocked or will get smoked to the ground, but that doesn’t affect him.

He’s back in the lane the next time down the court, finishing buckets or finding teammates.

Pitino said the key to Mathieu’s success in the interior — fearlessness.

Silencing doubters

Tyndall, now the head coach at Southern Miss, said he’s gotten plenty of calls this season asking how he let Mathieu slip away.

Minnesota is glad he did.

Mathieu is second on the team in scoring and was named All-Big Ten honorable mention Monday.

No one expected Mathieu to experience this type of success — no one, maybe, except him.

“I knew nobody would know me in the Big Ten,” he said. “I came here with the mindset that I’m going to be the best player every time I touch the floor.”

Tyndall said he has no regrets about his decision — had he given Mathieu a scholarship, the guard never would have played under the bright lights in the Big Ten.

“I’m probably glad because of the way it all turned out,” Tyndall said.

As for Mathieu, he doesn’t forget those who doubted him — they’re the ones who motivate him.

“Oh man, beyond anything anybody ever knows,” he said. “To get no offers, no calls or anything, it just really, really fueled me more than I could tell anybody. I’m just happy I got the opportunity to show what I can do. Now I’m here at the biggest stage.”

When the Gophers take the court at the Big Ten tournament Thursday, the biggest stage will belong to the smallest man on the court.

Mathieu wouldn’t have it any other way.