After missing the previous season with a knee injury, Rhode Island Rams star guard E.C. Matthews (14.9ppg, 4.3rpg) returned to the hardwood in 2016-17 to help lead the Rams to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. Once there, Rhode Island dispatched Big East foe Creighton easily before falling in a thriller to eventual Final Four participant Oregon.
Now fully healthy, Matthews has his sights set on leading his team deep into March once again. I recently tracked down the rising, 6-foot-5 senior during this busy off-season to discuss his development, time at Rhode Island, and 2017-18 goals.
Let’s roll back the calendar to March 4th of this year. That night, in a critical game you threw down a vicious dunk versus Davidson. Many marked that as an announcement of your true return to form. Is that accurate?
That’s on point. To be honest, after the game Coach Hurley and my teammates were like, “You’re back, you’re going to go on an unbelievable run now,” and I felt that way too. I think that dunk told myself and my body, “You’re not hurt anymore and you can do this at a high level.” So that gave me a ton of confidence going into the Atlantic 10 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. I felt like I had that edge, that confidence, and I just played.
So having experienced it first-hand, do you subscribe to the notion that a watershed moment like that is what propels a player mentally to trust his/her body again?
It’s totally true. The biggest thing for me going into the year… I knew I wasn’t going to be 100%. I played the whole year not at 100%. I knew I wasn’t going to be my best self, at least in the beginning or the middle of the season. I knew it would take time. It came against Davidson late in the season. I don’t want to say it was a “warm-up” year for me… but coming fresh off an injury like that, I had to get used to playing again and trusting that knee again.
You all enjoyed a great run to finish the season, winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship in convincing fashion, then doing some damage in the NCAA Tournament. Reflecting upon that experience, what did it mean to you?
Seeing everybody you care about – friends and family – so happy and excited for that journey… Just seeing them happy, beyond even the tournament games, it makes you want to go through it again. There’s nothing like it, so once a team is able to go like we were for the first time in a long time, you have that hunger and that edge to get back to it. I’m very excited for this season and how we’re going to play it all out and try to make it back there.
What perhaps surprised you about that experience?
All the people that cared. When we came home to the airport after losing to Oregon… there were tons and tons of people so proud of us in the terminal… that moment, I felt like the whole state of Rhode Island was cheering for us and supporting us. The fact that we touched so many people’s lives… I didn’t understand the volume of what we did until we came back. Now I’ll be walking through a store and see an older woman or a young boy and they’ll tell me how they’re so happy that we did that. It’s incredible.
You’re entering your fifth season on campus and one fella who will be missing alongside you is Hassan Martin. You and Hassan were the cornerstones to this program rebuild. How’s early life without him in Kingston?
I just actually got off the phone with him. He was here last week and I think he’s going overseas to play. He made it, and I’m proud of him. But life here without him is weird. He was my best friend. If you would see me out, you would see him. Whether at the dining hall, gym, working out, so me trying to replace him will never happen. So I’m pretty sure that when school starts and I wake up or go to study hall, it’s going to hit me. I’m proud of him, he’s proud of me and thinks I’m going to have a great year… and that’s my brother for life.
What areas of your game have you been working on this off-season?
Well, finally I get to work on my game and not rehab. So I’m so happy for that. I’m working on everything… I feel more explosive than I ever was. But I’m concentrating on being a leader out there and more of an alpha, that’s my biggest calling to improve. I’m working on developing my all-around game, being a play-maker not a scorer; making plays offensively and defensively.
Perfect segue for this next question. Coach Hurley has challenged you publicly to be great. What does that mean to you and how does it make you feel?
It’s a father-son type of relationship. It’s like your father challenges you to do something and you are going to go all out… you can’t let him down, that’s how I feel. He believes in me and has said that since the day I met him. When your coach truly believes in you, it gives you even more confidence. He challenges me every day and this is our last ride together. So I’m going to try to be a mini-version of him out there. I want to be great, he’s knows that, and I’m healthy now… so who knows what greatness I can accomplish this year?!
Along those lines, how has you’re relationship with him grown during your time at Rhode Island?
When I first got here, everything [conversation-wise] was basketball between he and I. I would only talk basketball. I was very shy. I’d think about the “right” thing to say to him. But over time I’ve gotten to know not only Coach Hurley but the man Hurley and he’s gotten to know not just the basketball player E.C. but the person E.C. Now, we talk about so much more than basketball. I spend so much time with him… and his wife, Mrs. Hurley, is like a mother to me, treating me like my own mother. There’s tons of love there. He’s taught me about how to be a better person, better man.
The team has a summer trip to Bahamas on the docket from August 7th to 13th. You excited?
Yeah, it will be great to head to another place and bond. We’ll see some sights, bond, and cherish it for the rest of our lives. I’m looking forward to practicing before the trip as well and digging in.
Summer sessions are underway. Any teammates who you think could surprise this year?
I think a lot of people should watch out for Andre Berry. I think his role is going to increase this year. Being one of the older guys, he’s hungry to help our team win and wants to be one of the main reasons why. He’s cut down his weight even more, is our best post player, has great footwork in the post, and has extended his range some too.
I also think Fatts [Daron Russell] from Philly is going to be a good one. Who knows what will happen this year, but he’ll be ready. He’s fast, picks up the game easily, he’s fearless and has a lot of potential.
Those are two guys who have caught my attention. But everybody else is getting better and improving. We have chance to be very good this year.
Since you mentioned one of the new guys in Fatts Russell, let’s talk about another, Ryan Preston. What have you seen from him early on?
He has freakish athleticism. I think he may have more bounce than Hassan and I thought I’d never say that. He can help us out with doing a lot of things that are tough to teach: finishing above the rim, rebounding, defending…and over time he’ll round out his offensive game. I think he’ll help us out a lot once he figures out his role, his niche and what he can specifically do to help us.
Okay, let’s shift gears for a moment… With coaching changes, the graduation of Dayton’s core four, etc., you all enter the season as the “hunted” in the Atlantic 10 — and will be the prohibitive favorite. How does that feel?
It’s great. It’s what every team wants. I’ve been on the other side [freshman year]. We reached our goal, last year, and now we want more. We’re like “What’s next, what’s next,” and we have that type of hunger now. We know we’re going to get our opponents’ best games and we’re looking forward to that because it will make us a grittier and better team. We’ll attack it head on. Me personally, I’m looking forward to it.
Finally, how will you define both individual and team success this season?
For me, pushing the envelope and saying, “Why not me?” I definitely feel I have the talent and skills to be one of the best players in the country. I say this humbly as it’s a goal, but I want to be the best player ever to come out of Rhode Island… I want to win another Atlantic 10 title and I want to go far in the NCAA’s. Team-wise, I feel like it goes hand in hand. We have a lot of leaders on the team and I need to be a main one and I feel, again, like we can push the envelope. Why can’t we be that team that surprises the nation and goes all out; has a Cinderella season? I know it will take a lot of hard work. I’m working at it every day and my teammates are working at it too.