Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again.”
Emmitt Matthews is proving the famous American novelist wrong, though, as the former Mountaineer basketball player is headed back to West Virginia.
A native of Tacoma, Washington, Matthews spent the first three years of his college career at WVU, where he played in 92 games, started 67 of them, scored 592 points (6.4 per game) and pulled down 325 rebounds (3.5 per game). After the 2020-21 season, though, the 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward decided to return home, transferring to the University of Washington, which is about 40 miles from Tacoma.
“My parents were able to attend every game, and my friends, who had never gotten a chance to see me play in college, got to come to games as well,” said Matthews of his time with the Huskies. “At the end of the day, though, I have to make the decision that is the best for me and for my life. Sometimes that’s not always being at home. I am glad I got the opportunity to play here. I enjoyed it.”
Matthews quickly fit in at UW last year, starting 31 games for the Huskies. He was second on the team in scoring (11.7 points per game) and rebounding (4.7 per game) while playing 32 minutes per game for a team that finished 17-15.
As the season came to an end in Washington, though, Matthews decided it was time for him to transfer again. Because of the Covid-caused eligibility-free year in 2020-21, he still had a season of college eligibility remaining, and he decided to spend that final year at a familiar spot.
“I just think going into my last year and entering the portal, learning a new system would be something hard to do,” Matthews said during an interview on the MetroNews “Statewide Sportsline,” explaining his return to West Virginia. “I know the system there, I know the play style, I know the coaching. I didn’t burn any bridges when I left. I kept those relationships. Now I’m coming back, and I’m excited to win games, and hopefully we can get Huggs a title.”
In his most recent season at WVU in 2020-21, Matthews helped lead the Mountaineers to a 19-10 record and a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Along the way, he posted the best numbers of his three-year West Virginia career, averaging 7.7 points and 4.0 rebounds while making 40.6% of his field goal attempts (80 of 197), 30% of his 3-point tries (15 of 50) and 76.6% of his free throws (49 of 64).
In his one season at UW, his averages improved and his shooting accuracy was also better, as he converted 43.4% of his field goals (124 of 286), 33.6% of his threes (40 of 119) and 75.5% of his foul shots (74 of 98). He reached double figures in scoring 19 times in 31 games with the Huskies and eclipsed 20 points three times.
“I’m more comfortable in myself, setting my feet and taking shots,” explained Matthews of his improvement.
“I shot the ball better this year from three. I was more aggressive than I’ve ever been,” he added. “Taking that leap and being more aggressive on the offensive end was the biggest thing I did this year. That’s what I want to do even better next year.”
Matthews put up good numbers at Washington and was close to his hometown, but still that didn’t keep him from looking for a new school. He found that in an old place with a coach in Bob Huggins he knows very well.
“I thought about it, and I tried to picture myself playing at other schools and for other coaches, but in the end, I have a good relationship with Huggs and the rest of the coaching staff,” said the sport management major who was a member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll during his WVU days. “Huggs has been a big figure in my life, always making sure I’m alright. You don’t get that type of relationship a lot. I’m not saying I didn’t have that other places, but my relationship with Huggs was always special.
“So, I just wanted to spend my last year in Morgantown, have that senior night experience, walking down the carpet, holding my jersey up and giving (Huggins) a hug. I think that’s going to be a one-of-a-kind experience.”
The Mountaineer program Matthews left behind just a year ago is much different than the one he’ll join this summer.
Some things will be familiar for Emmitt in Morgantown, as the coaches are the same and his younger sister Ahmani is a student at WVU.
But in terms of players, only senior point guard Kedrian Johnson remains from West Virginia’s 2020-21 squad that also featured Matthews.
The 2022-23 Mountaineers are slated to return five holdovers in Keddie Johnson and four freshmen from last season – Kobe Johnson, Seth Wilson, Jamel King and James Okonkwo. Huggins and his staff signed three prospects in the early National Letter of Intent commitment period in November (Josiah Davis, Josiah Harris and Pat Suemnick), and then have added five more so far this spring – Matthews and fellow Power 5 transfers Joe Toussaint (Iowa) and Erik Stevenson (South Carolina), plus juco big men Mohamed Wague and Jimmy Bell.
“I think we have a group of guys ready to work and ready to go. I’m going to try to be a leader, but we also have Kedrian coming back.”
One other player Matthews knows well is Stevenson, a 6-foot-4 guard from Lacey, Washington, which, like Tacoma, is a southern suburb of Seattle.
“Me and Erik go way back,” noted Matthews, who attended Woodrow Wilson High in Tacoma, while Stevenson was at Timberline High in Lacey. Both were all-state honorees during their senior seasons in 2017-18. “We played AAU together starting when we were 13 or 14, and we did that off and on for a number of years. He’s very athletic, he can shoot the ball, he’s aggressive. I think he’s going to bring a lot of scoring (Stevenson has posted 1,187 points in his four college seasons so far). He’s a Huggs’ guy. He’s not afraid to be coached hard. I think he’ll come in, be ready for the environment and be ready to go.
“I really don’t know the other (new) guys, though. I look forward to meeting them and establishing those relationships.”
Obviously, players like Matthews and Stevenson will have to contribute greatly on the offensive end for the Mountaineers this coming season, where WVU returns just 11.6% of its point production from 2021-22. It’s in the other hallmarks of Huggins basketball where West Virginia came up woefully short this past season. Its defense and rebounding were each last in the Big 12, and those areas will be a major focus of improvement this coming season.
“A staple of our game is going to be getting stops and getting out in transition, the whole Press Virginia thing,” noted Matthews. “We may be able to bring that back and have the same energy as some of those other teams did, go at it 100%.
“If you look at today’s game, with how fast people play and how many threes people take, it’s hard to press for all 40 minutes, but I think if we have the ability to throw a press at people randomly, it will be a good thing for us.
“Just looking at the roster, I think we can get out in transition, which also gets the fans involved.”
Matthews is anxious to get the WVU Coliseum revved up again.
“I’m excited,” he stated. “Our schedule is pretty good. We’re going to play out in Portland (for three games over Thanksgiving weekend in the Phil Knight Legacy), so my family will be able to see me play there.”
For Matthews, not everything will be the same, though. His signature floppy hair with blonde highlights is gone, much to the disappointment of many.
“I don’t think the blonde will ever come back; I’m sorry,” Matthews chuckled when asked about his hair. “My mom is bummed I’m not doing it, too, but I think this looks a little more professional, and I look a little bit older.”
The blonde hair may be gone, but Emmitt Matthews is happy to be a Mountaineer again.
“I’m really excited to come back,” he said.