Three years ago this month, Dre Mathieu received a call he thought would change his life.
Chattanooga basketball coach John Shulman was on the line. He offered an elusive Division I offer Mathieu felt was overdue.
“I thought that was the final deal,” Mathieu said Monday night, stepping back in time. “I was ready to go. A lot has happened since. It’s crazy.”
Among the happenings: Mathieu never attended Chattanooga, played one season as a walk-on at Morehead State, transferred to Central Arizona College for a year, and then, finally, saw a long-sought dream come true.
“It worked out for the best after all,” he said, returning to the present.
Hailing from the Lonsdale section of Knoxville, Mathieu — overlooked and underestimated his whole career — will be a scholarship player at Minnesota next season. The pint-sized but hiccup-quick point guard will, at long last, play big-time college basketball.
“I had to prove it at Morehead. I had to prove it at Central Arizona. Now it’s time to prove it at Minnesota,” Mathieu said.
In his senior year at Central High School, Mathieu earned 2011 PrepXtra Boys’ Basketball Player of the Year, averaging 20.7 points, 8.1 assists, 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 steals per game. At the time, it wasn’t enough to yield a DI career. He says he’s still unsure why the UTC offer fell through. Other colleges, meanwhile, weighed his height, just 5 feet, 9 inches, over his skill.
So Mathieu walked-on at Morehead. He played in 29 of 33 games, but wasn’t offered a scholarship after his freshman year.
He then transferred to Central Arizona. One week before the 2012-13 season began, Mathieu remembers text messaging his mother and four brothers. It read, “Don’t worry about anything. We’re going to go get it.”
Mathieu got it at Central Arizona. He averaged 17.1 points, 6.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game, opening a floodgate of DI scholarship offers. In a flash, the attention he felt he long deserved poured forth.
“Actually, I thought it was more attention than I deserved,” he said. “I had to start turning my phone off at night. It was overwhelming.”
The days of considering a scholarship from Chattanooga were over. Minnesota, Ole Miss, UCLA, Memphis, Washington State and Pepperdine were on the pursuit.
“Dre was a joy, an absolute blessing,” Central Arizona coach JD Pollock said Monday. “He led the team from day one and really ran with it. He had an exceptional year for us, obviously.”
Nearly three years after the call from Shulman, another phone call made this college choice an easy one. The Golden Gophers are led by newly hired coach Richard Pitino, son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Soon after leading the Cardinals to last year’s national title, the elder Pitino called Mathieu to say his son’s system is a perfect fit.
“I was like oh my goodness, it’s Rick Pitino,” Mathieu said.
He committed to Minnesota soon after.
“And he earned every bit of that scholarship,” Pollock said.
Doubters aside, Mathieu will now spend two seasons in the grueling, grinding Big Ten Conference.
“Dre has a lot of game,” said Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, an All-SEC performer last year who is teamed with Mathieu in this summer’s Rocky Top League. “He’s a pass-first point guard who’s quicker than anyone else out there. Plus, he can jump out of the gym.”
Scholarship in tow, Mathieu will soon depart for Minneapolis. He has two years of eligibility to prove himself. History shows that shouldn’t be a problem.
“There is always going to be a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I was passed over so much. It’s just it’s time.”
Campus Lights 100, Choice Spine 90: Aided by 18 from Mathieu, McRae led Campus Lights with 31. Former Vol Rob Murphy scored 14 for Choice Spine which was led by Boo Jackson’s 23. Campus Lights will meet News Sentinel in the Rocky Top League championship game at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Rice Buick GMC 107, DeRoyal Industries 98: UT’s Josh Richardson (50) and Darius Thompson (27) combined for 77 in the win, outdueling DeRoyal’s UT duo of D’Montre Edwards (33) and A.J. Davis (22). Vols sophomore Armani Moore left the game with a sprained ankle, but said afterward he was OK and left under his own power. DeRoyal will face Choice Spine in Tuesday’s 3rd-place game at 6 p.m.
News Sentinel 113, Next Level 105: Galen Campbell and Wayne Chism scored 28 apiece in the win, while incoming freshman Robert Hubbs finished with 28 for Next Level.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.