Tommy Amaker always liked the way J.C. Mathis played basketball; so much so that he recruited him out of high school to play for Seton Hall.
Ultimately, Mathis opted for Virginia over Seton Hall, but after a rough two-year stint with the Cavaliers, he decided to transfer. Once again, he had the opportunity to play for Amaker, and this time he took it.
“I’m excited to play for (Amaker) and he is the main reason why I decided to come to Michigan,” Mathis said.
The junior from Brooklyn lettered in this two seasons for the Cavaliers, but saw little playing time last season. As a result, Mathis decided that he wanted a change of pace. Though he played in 28 games including 20 starts, he averaged just over 16 minutes per contest.
“The decision to leave was solely based on basketball,” Mathis said. “It was mainly my playing time and my role and how I thought things would be my last two years there.”
Mathis felt the Cavaliers’ depth would prevent him from making a major impact. Even with his own departure and the loss of star guard Roger Mason to the NBA, Mathis believes Virginia is still at least 11 players deep – all of which are players who could see considerable minutes in the seasons to come.
“Virginia is really deep with very good individual players,” Mathis said. “Two and three people at every position.”
Mathis, who averaged 4.9 points and four rebounds per game last season, asked Virginia coach Pete Gillen to release him from his scholarship so that he could transfer. Gillen consented and Mathis was freed to pursue other avenues. While Gillen was unavailable for an interview, he released a statement to The Michigan Daily that he wished the best for Mathis, a player he characterized as a terrific young man, who did an excellent job for the Cavaliers for two years.
Amaker, who could not comment because Mathis has not yet officially enrolled at Michigan, had already seen Mathis from his days coaching at Seton Hall. Many college coaches marveled at Mathis in his senior campaign, when the 6-foot-8 forward led John F. Kennedy High School to the Class A New York City Championship. Mathis averaged a double-double in his final high school season, posting more than 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. He also averaged four blocks and more than three assists.
While Mathis’ numbers were tantalizing enough, his leadership ability was also a great asset. While leadership in basketball often comes from the guard position, Mathis’ vocal nature and knowledge of the game make him a great leader. Just ask his father and high school coach, Johnny Mathis.
“He’s a great leader because he’s been a student of basketball since he was very young,” Johnny said. “He probably understands basketball better than the average player, since he has been in it so long. He is so fundamentally sound and he understands what basketball is all about.”
Something else Mathis understands is sacrifice. While some of the other schools that pursued the transfer could offer Mathis a scholarship, Michigan already has all of its scholarships for next season allotted to other players. For Mathis to play for the Wolverines, he will have to pay his own tuition next year, until a scholarship becomes available.
“That was a decision that I chose to make because other schools that recruited me had scholarships, but I just thought that Michigan, with coach Amaker, is a good fit,” Mathis said. “That is the sacrifice that I’m willing to make, that I think will pay off in the long run.”
Mathis’ former coach believes his son can be a great asset to the Wolverines, because of what he brings to the table.
“He’s a forward who can play facing the basket or with his back to the basket,” Johnny said. “He can pass the ball, he can play defense and he can rebound. He will always box his man out. Not a flying guy, but he is fundamentally sound doing the things necessary to win ball games, like boxing out and playing defense.”
The Wolverines will have to wait though, because next season, Mathis will have to sit out because he transferred from one Division I school to another. He will not lose a year of eligibility, though, and will still have two years of eligibility remaining after sitting out one season. Just because he will be ineligible, does not mean he will be inactive.
“Next year, I’m going to practice with the team,” Mathis said. “But most of all, I’m going to try to get a great feel for everyone else and see how everyone else plays and see how to play with everyone else. I have a whole year to improve my game and improve myself physically. I’m not going to waste a year not getting better. So I’m going to try to help the team get better.”
His father knows how hard it will be for his son to sit out for the season, while watching the rest of the team play.
“It’ll be difficult,” Johnny said. “Since being five or six, he has always been able to play games. But he can make that adjustment.”
After one year of ineligibility, Mathis will be ready to join the Wolverines in the 2003-04 season, along with Detroit Redford’s Dion Harris, who verbally commited in late April.
“I think I should be able to help the team in many ways,” Mathis said. “I don’t know how that would translate into how many wins and losses, but I do think I can help the team improve its chances of winning. I can help scoring and rebounding. I add size and experience playing college basketball for two years.”
Mathis will have a second chance to make it at the college level, he just has to be patient.