This season, J.C. Mathis is going to be a
leader. He’ll be a player who speaks up in practice, a player
who scratches and claws for every rebound and a player who stays
upbeat in even the most trying times. He’ll walk onto the
floor as a Michigan captain.

Janna Hutz
(BRETT MOUNTAIN/Daily)

And yet he’s never played a regular-season game as a
Wolverine.

The 6-foot-8 forward was never supposed to put on a Michigan
uniform. After playing for his father at John F. Kennedy High
School in the Bronx, N.Y. Mathis decided to play at Virginia in the
ACC, a conference he had watched on television since he was
young.

At first it looked as if he was going to star there. Mathis
played in every game his freshman year and put in a season-high 24
minutes in the Cavaliers’ one-point loss to Gonzaga in the
first round of the NCAA Tournament. He was named the team’s
most improved player.

But as his sophomore season went on, Mathis’ spot in the
starting lineup dissolved as his future in the eyes of coach Pete
Gillen began to fade. So much so that he believed that transferring
was the only way that he was going to see major playing time, even
if he had to sit out a year to do it because of NCAA transfer
rules.

“I didn’t know where I was going to go,”
Mathis said. “I just knew I wanted to go somewhere
else.”

It was made official that May. Mathis was released from his
scholarship, hoping that someone would give him a chance. One of
the coaches that gave him that chance was Tommy Amaker. Amaker had
recruited Mathis when he coached at Seton Hall, and he figured that
Mathis could add experience to a team that didn’t have
much.

“He’s a communicator,” Amaker said.
“He’s very intelligent, very bright, very aware. Those
are things that I have always liked about him as a
player.”

There was a catch, however, as Amaker didn’t have any
scholarships to give. He did promise Mathis he would grant him a
scholarship for the following year. Mathis eventually decided that
playing for Amaker was worth having to pay his own way.

So Mathis came to Ann Arbor and had to sit on the sidelines
during the self-imposed sanctions, the six-game losing streak, the
13-game winning streak, the end-of-season deterioration, the NCAA
sanctions and the appeal.

But during it all, Mathis was there to support his new
teammates.

“Whenever we came back from an away game, whether we won
or lost and everybody’s sore and tired, he’d always be
ready to go,” sophomore forward Graham Brown said.
“He’d be yelling, and he’d always get us ready to
come to practice.”

Mathis found his role most trying during the Wolverines’
defeats.

“It’s difficult sitting on a bench during a game and
thinking maybe I could have helped in that situation,” Mathis
said.

Mathis got through the situation with the help of his teammates
and his family. He is close with his former coach and father,
Johnny, as well as his brother, Jarrett, a senior at Berkshire
Academy in Massachusetts.

“In a perfect world, (my father) would still be my college
coach too,” Mathis said. “I enjoyed the experience that
much.”

Johnny Mathis still tries to see as many of his sons’
games as possible, as he was in attendance for the Maize and Blue
Scrimmage. Jarrett is currently considering many Eastern schools,
such as Rutgers, Villanova, Princeton, Fairleigh Dickinson and
Columbia, but J.C. is unable to see his games.

“I try to help him as much as I can, he really wishes I
could see some of his games,” J.C. Mathis said.
“It’s really hard after he’s had a really good
game, and he’s trying to describe plays to me. It’s
really difficult.”

When Michigan discovered that it won its appeal with the NCAA
and would be able to qualify for the postseason, Johnny and Jarrett
were the first two people he called. But like many situations J.C.
has come across lately, he had to wait. He got both of their
answering machines. That, however, took little away from the
moment.

“It sounded too good to be true, because no one really
kept us up to date on how the appeal was going,” Mathis said.
“They didn’t tell us how strong they thought our
chances were, or how strong our case was. A lot of us didn’t
want to get false hope, wishing that we could get it and then get
crushed.”

Now Mathis is anxious to finally play in an actual college game
after an 18-month layoff. He was named captain along with senior
forward Colin Dill.

“J.C really knows the game of basketball well,” Dill
said. “We often talk about what we have to do together as
captains to make sure our team is playing as well as
(possible).”

Mathis will be just one of three upperclassmen on this
year’s team, and the only Wolverine to ever play in an NCAA
Tournament game.

Mathis strengthens a frontline to a team that was playing just
seven deep last season. He may compete for a job in the starting
lineup — he started the second game of the Wolverines’
preseason Canadian tour — and will help develop the
team’s younger post players.

“I’m hoping that he can be the rebounder that we
really need to anchor that frontline and lead the way, whether
he’s starting or not starting, for our younger players on how
to do things the right way,” Amaker said.

One player that has benefited from Mathis’ presence is
Brown, who averaged 20 minutes a game last year as a freshman.

“J.C. plays the game like me,” Brown said. “He
doesn’t have the jumper that a lot of other guys do. He just
knows you have to be crafty out there when you’re shooting,
so he’s shown me what he’s learned over the years.
He’s always such a positive player out there, and he’s
always such a great leader out there.”

His experiences have made an impression on everyone.

“He’s had to sacrifice a lot to be here,”
Amaker said. “When you look around our lockerroom, all our
players can recognize that we have to sacrifice, and probably no
one has sacrificed more than J.C. to be at this school.”

But for now, Mathis just wants to get on the court.

“I’ve been playing so long with an empty gym,”
Mathis said.

His coaches and teammates are happy he won’t have to wait
much longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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