SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A year ago at this time, Rhode Island junior E.C. Matthews was sitting in the stands, watching the early rounds of the NCAA Championship that were held in Providence.
Nate Oats, who coached Matthews at Romulus High, had led Buffalo to a first-round matchup against Miami. Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley joined Matthews at the Dunkin Donuts Center so the Rams' guard could see his former coach in action.
It was an interesting way to cap a rough 2015-16 season. Matthews suffered a season-ending injury just nine minutes into the year and had to work endless hours off the court to rehab his knee for this season.
"E.C. was making progress with the torn ACL and I wanted him to see what it was like," said Hurley, referring to the charged atmosphere that is March Madness. "I wanted him to see, and feel, and sense what it would be like if we were able to put ourselves in a position to get there. Seeing that environment, I think, gave him a little extra push to put the work in, make the sacrifices, and continue to push himself in his rehab so he could get on this national stage and have the eyes of the country on him."
The move has paid off. Matthews is playing arguably the best basketball of his career after leading the Rams to the Atlantic 10 title last weekend in Pittsburgh. The junior was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after averaging 19.3 points and 5.7 rebounds over three games. He made 10-of-15 shots from 3-point range and repeatedly made big shots when the team needed them most.
Now it's on to the biggest stage yet for Rhode Island, which plays Creighton Friday afternoon in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament (TBS, 4:30 p.m. ET). The atmosphere Matthews experienced from the stands one year ago in Providence gave him a taste of what to expect when he steps out on the Golden 1 Center floor tomorrow.
"There's nothing like it," Matthews said. "I was a fan in the crowd, but seeing the number of people there, the level of play, how hard the teams play and how every detail matters – you've got to be really focused and put your all into it. It's a blessing just to be a part of that. I think our team is going to feed off that very well. We're going to play very hard."
Going up against Creighton will be the next step in an incredible journey for Matthews.
"We knew it would be a great story because this was a kid that – nine minutes into the opening game of his junior year – his whole world fell apart," Hurley said. "E.C. Matthews, his recovery from that devastating injury and the fact that he led us to this tournament – obviously along with a number of other tremendous players – I think it's one of the great stories of the NCAA Tournament."