March 1, 2004 BLACKSBURG Bryant Matthews remembers every detail of every game he played outside of Cassell Coliseum in his career at Virginia Tech, even the fuzzy memories from his freshman season. He never got nervous when he was a rookie, probably because he didn't know he was supposed to be. I was too stupid to grasp it all, Matthews said. Some people take life by the horns. Other people try to bull through life. I guess I was trying to bull through.
That's Matthews-speak for bullheadedness, and he admits it's part of the reason why the Hokies didn't total double-digits in wins away from home during his four years at Tech. He hopes forward Coleman Collins and guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon this year's talented trio of freshman Hokies don't share Matthews' stubborn streak, but he knows some of it is present.
To be an impact player in a major college basketball conference, Matthews believes you've got to play with a little arrogance. He has always had at least a little bit.
I remember going on the road to places like UConn when I was a freshman, said Matthews, regarding his 2000-01 season. People would be like, Oh, there's Caron Butler.' I was like, So?' It was like that wherever we went. There's Troy Murphy.' So?' There's Michael Bradley.' So?'
Matthews was a power forward in those days. He didn't care if he had to post up against Karl Malone. Matthews played with a chip on his shoulder against everybody.
When we went to Georgetown when I was a freshman, everybody was talking about (Ruben) Boumtje-Boumtje and saying, He's a great shotblocker,' Matthews said. I was like, Whatever, he's just tall.' The first shot I took in that game I remember the ball hit him in the chin.
Matthews' freshman conceit wasn't just reserved for the Big East big men. He remembers talking trash with point guard Omar Cook, who was then a fellow freshman at St. John's, in Virginia Tech's first-ever Big East game a 25-point loss on the road. Matthews recalls sending John Linehan, a 5-9 former point guard dynamo at Providence, sliding across the Providence Civic Center floor with a well-placed shoulder to the body in a 96-56 loss to the Friars, the Hokies' worst loss in 13 years.
Those were tough times for Matthews and his teammates. He's amazed he has gotten to this stage of his career an NBA prospect after some of the youthful antics he pulled.
Lack of depth on Tech's 2000-01 squad forced Matthews to start in 25 of the 26 games he played, much like Collins, Dowdell and Gordon have had to do on this season's team. This year's group of freshmen seems to have used a different approach than Matthews did in his freshman campaign.
I made mistakes the whole game (as a freshman), Matthews said. (Collins, Dowdell and Gordon are) more rational. I can say they have more basketball IQ' than I had. I try to set examples for them by leading. I don't say too much, so the best way I can show them things is to set examples.
Rookies Tackle Road Challenge
It was hard for Matthews to set an example for something he rarely experienced, like winning on the road. By all accounts, the Hokies were a surprise this season simply because they didn't finish in last place in the Big East. But learning to play on the road will be a critical next step in the maturation of coach Seth Greenberg's team if it is to succeed in the ACC next year.
Trying to win in the Carrier Dome and the Petersen Events Center (Pittsburgh) may have been a struggle, but the prospects of winning on the road may become downright nightmarish when the Hokies beginning traveling to Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean E. Smith Center.
Greenberg was encouraged by what he saw from his team on the road this season. Tech won at West Virginia 69-67 on Jan. 14, the Hokies' first win in Morgantown since the 1994-95 season. Respectable efforts on the road against ranked Syracuse and away from home against Ohio State, Seton Hall, Villanova and Boston College showed Greenberg that his young players weren't in over their heads. Plus, he's quick to mention that winning on the road is a chore regardless of whether the front of your jersey says Duke or Virginia Tech.
It's difficult for everybody in the nation, Greenberg said. At least we got one (league win on the road). There are better teams than us that haven't been able to win on the road. Look at Iowa State. I think the world of (Cyclones coach) Wayne Morgan, and I think he has a great program, but they haven't had any success on the road (15-10 overall, 0-7 on the road in the Big 12). We know we have to get better, and we are.
Some of Greenberg's optimism has to stem from the fact that Collins, Dowdell and Gordon saved a few of their best efforts for the road this season. Collins and Dowdell combined for 30 points and four steals at Pittsburgh. Dowdell played every minute in the win at West Virginia, scoring 20 points and connecting on five of nine attempts from three-point range. Gordon led his team in scoring with 21 points on nine-of-17 shooting at Syracuse.
Consistency is the bane of most freshmen, and Collins, Dowdell and Gordon were no different. There were a few road games where all three players disappeared. They combined for 10 points in a 33-point loss at Rutgers and totaled 10 points in a loss at Boston College.
But attitude hasn't been a problem with the freshmen. It's not the posture Matthews would've chosen to take during his rookie season, but he's not complaining about the way Collins, Dowdell and Gordon have gone about their business.
You don't know how people are going to respond, but they've done a good job, Matthews said. I'm sure there are things they wish they could've done better, but that's just inexperience. You always look at how you could do things better. I know I do.