The most dominant big man in the country doesn’t play for Kentucky.
He doesn’t play for Kansas, either.
He doesn’t wear Carolina Blue, he doesn’t have a nickname as cool as Sully or Day-Day and he doesn’t bear a strong resemblance to Luke Harangody.
His name is AJ Matthews and he’s a junior at Farmingdale State, a small Division III school tucked away an hour outside New York City on Long Island. Matthews, however, is anything but small or tucked away. Standing 7’0″ tall, he not only leads the nation — at any level — in rebounding at 16.6 rpg, he also leads the country in double-doubles. In fact, he’s the only player in the country to record a double-double in every game he’s suited up this season.
But his most impressive performance of the season came on February 23rd when Matthews went for 35 points and 29 boards, to go along with four steals and three blocks, as the Rams advanced to the Skyline Tournament finals with a win over Mt. St. Mary’s. Two days later, they would win the league title and advance to the NCAA Tournament with a win over SUNY-Purchase.
“I’ve coached in the Empire Games, I’ve coached Charles Jenkins and I’ve coached guys playing overseas,” head coach Erik Smiles said. “He hasn’t received any interest that I know of yet, but I’ll tell you this: the kid’s a pro. He can have a chance to play in the D-League. If he doesn’t want to do that, he’s going to have a chance to go overseas and make legit money.”
“Danny Nee was at the [semifinal game]. He was the coach at Nebraska for 15 or 20 years. He’s now the coach at King’s Point down the street from us. After the game, we went to the bar and hung out a bit and he said that [Matthews] is as good as any kid he had at Nebraska.”
So how did a seven-footer end up at a school like Farmingdale State?
Matthews had stops at two different JuCo’s and at one time was committed to Fairleigh Dickinson, with longtime friend Ryan Davis going along with him at every stop. But, as Matthews put it, schoolwork got in the way of a scholarship.
“The previous schools I was at, I really didn’t do what I needed to do as far as grades wise. I had some problems,” he said. “At my last JuCo, I found out towards the end of the year that I wasn’t going to be able to go Division I like I wanted to. So I talked to Chuck [Davis, Ryan’s father], and me and Ryan decided together that we wanted to find a school that we were comfortable at that was closer to our family that was a nice school.”
They landed on Farmingdale State, which was a perfect fit for Matthews. Unlike many star athletes these days, Matthews doesn’t love being the center of attention. He’s much happier in a place away from the spotlight where he’s known for simply being that really tall guy in class.
“His biggest thing, and he’ll tell you this, is that he doesn’t like being around a lot of people,” Smiles said. “He doesn’t like big campuses. He doesn’t like being overwhelmed. He actually really enjoys being at a smaller school on a smaller campus.”
“We’re very happy. Great school. Great coach,” Matthews said. “We’re well taken care of over here. We do what we have to do on our own. Its not too close to home but its not that far from home. It works out pretty well.”
Given his size and accomplishments on the court despite being triple-teamed every time he touches the ball — as Matthews put it, “they sometimes put four players on me. That’s not one team, that’s every team. Its every night.” — the potential for a professional career is there. As the saying goes, you can’t teach height. And you can’t teach a seven-footer that’s coordinated and athletic, either.
But for now, Matthews isn’t even thinking about the next level.
“As far as the professional level is concerned, I don’t really discuss that,” he said. “I don’t really look forward to that. I’m still trying to work on my degree. I’m just worried about winning a championship at this level and getting my degree.”
He wouldn’t be the only seven-footer in law enforcement.
“Shaq is my role model right now as far as becoming a cop.”
“Nah,” he said with a laugh. “I’m more like Dwight Howard.”
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.