When basketball became important to Montez Mathis in fifth grade, it came with a price.
“My father wouldn’t let me go outside unless I did push-ups, pull-ups or did something with a basketball,” laughed Mathis, a native of Edgewood, Md. “I couldn’t go outside and play with my friends until I did something first.”
Aaron Mathis was instilling a little work ethic in his youngest son, now intrinsic to Montez’ success as a rising college junior and something that has helped fuel a Rutgers roundball renaissance under fourth-year coach Steve Pikiell.
The Scarlet Knights went 20-11 this past season, the once-storied program’s second 20-win campaign in 37 years. Rutgers posted its first national ranking in 41 seasons and first winning slate in 14 years. The Knights’ 18 wins in the raucous Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) were the most home wins for any school in the country, and their 11 Big Ten victories were the most since the school joined the conference in 2014.
The 6-foot-4 Mathis was in the middle of it all, starting all 31 games, averaging 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds. The John Carroll graduate was also second on the defense-minded team with 30 steals. He scored in double figures 10 times overall and six times against Big Ten foes, including a career-high 17 against Michigan Feb. 1. His sticky man-to-man defense, honed on the playgrounds of Edgewood and around Baltimore against great competition helped change games and the perception of the Scarlet Knights.
“He’s an elite defender and I don’t think players get enough credit for that,” Pikiell said. “He accepts the challenge. Our league has some of the best guards in the country. One night he’s guarding Cassius Winston. The next night he’s guarding Marcus Carr from Minnesota, the next night Ayo [Dosunmu] at Illinois and then [Maryland’s Anthony] Cowan. He wants that assignment and that’s the first part of being an elite defender.”
Pikiell said the biggest adjustment Mathis made was in becoming a better “team defender,” learning the nuances of not just shutting his man down, but also being in the right spots to hold an entire team in check.
The Scarlet Knights can turn out the lights, ranking eighth nationally in field goal percentage defense (.383) and 18th in scoring defense (62.6 points per game). In the bully-filled Big Ten, Rutgers was second in field-goal defense, third in scoring defense and steals (6.5 per game) and fourth in 3-point field goal defense (.311 percent) and blocked shots (4.6). Six of the eight lowest field goal percentages against Rutgers all time in Big Ten play came in 2019-20.
“Coach Pikiell told me defense was 50 percent of the game, and that really hit me,” said Mathis. “For me, it evolved playing with friends, talking trash. ‘You can’t score on me,’ so I guess I always took it personal.”
Mathis came up playing on a local circuit that included basketball buds like Darryl Morsell and Jalen Smith of Maryland; Immanuel Quickley (Kentucky); Noah Locke (Florida); Tyler Foster (Youngstown State), and Andre Rafus Jr. (Eastern Michigan). Mathis and Quickley won the MIAA A Conference title at John Carroll in 2017-18.
“I’ve known a lot of those guys since elementary school and we go at it hard — Baltimore toughness — but it’s a good bond,” Mathis said. “When I see someone else from Baltimore doing good it makes me happy.”
Mathis is one of those from the greater Charm City region having success. Maybe those extra push-ups and sit-ups back in the day gave him a head start. He started 23 games as a freshman in 2018-19, was third on the team at 8.5 points and upped that average to 10.2 in conference play. The high-flying guard out was among the top 12 Big Ten freshmen statistically in scoring, steals, assists and field goal percentage. And he said he wasn’t even really ready yet.
“I just go out there and play hard, try not to force anything,” Mathis said. “I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself. I listen to the coaches. When I first came in, I struggled, and I still had ups and downs last year. With my junior year coming up, I think I’ll be fine. I know what I’m supposed to do.”
The Knights had their best days when Mathis was locking down on defense and aggressive on offense. He can get to the basket and he’s improving as a shooter. Among his strengths as a player, though, count humility.
“He’s humble. He’s appreciative and he’s thankful,” said Pikiell, who won the 2020 Jim Phelan Award as the nation’s top Division I coach. “The first time I called him — and I make a lot of phone calls to kids, and I get a lot of responses — he was awesome. ‘Coach, thanks for calling. I really appreciate it.’ You don’t get a lot of that. I love his family. I love his toughness. I love that he wants to get better.”
The youngest of four brothers, Mathis credits his parents for his success, and truth be told he had two grandfathers who both were U.S. Army. There’s a little discipline running through the family ranks that has served Montez well. Remember all those push-ups trying to get out the door?
While his parents pushed him, his grandfathers were mostly pushovers despite that military background, but that’s the scouting report on most grandparents. There’s an attention to duty and a work ethic that Pikiell says makes Mathis extra valuable in the rebuilding Rutgers program.
Mathis breaks down film to be a better defender and he’s inquisitive, seeking out help from coaches. His defense is so good social distancing is probably an issue for him, but this summer he’s working on ball-handling, his shot and finishing at the rim to add to his game.
Ask him what the highlight of his Rutgers run has been, and Mathis’ answer is revealing.
“Probably the growth I have seen in myself every day, on and off the floor,” he said. “I made a big jump from freshman year to sophomore year. I think I’m a lot more mature.”
That maturity helped when Rutgers’ amazing season ended so abruptly.
“We had two good wins closing out the regular season [No. 9 Maryland and at Purdue], so I think we were going to make some noise in the postseason,” Mathis said.
The Scarlet Knights erased a lot of red on their ledger last year with the sensational showing. Seven of the top eight players return for an encore in the 8,000-seat, packed RAC. Pikiell thought his team turned the tide by being “coachable” and buying in. Mathis has proven the poster child for coachability with that work ethic and desire to improve.
“It’s fuel to the fire,” Mathis said of Rutgers’ rise. “We just want to get better. If we do the things we did this year and just do them better I think we’ll be good.”
Photo Credit: Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics