On Monday afternoon, Southern Miss men’s basketball coach Donnie Tyndall met with his players to warn them of the deadliness of the player he let go.
If his Golden Eagles advance to the NIT semifinals in New York, they’ll have to go through the talented DeAndre Mathieu first. The junior point guard, who enters Tuesday’s game at Williams Arena second on the Gophers in scoring (12.0) and first in assists (4.2), has arguably been the team’s most dynamic player this year, his first season at Minnesota.
It’s a reality Tyndall could hardly have imagined two years ago. Back then, he coached Mathieu as a freshman walk-on at Morehead (Ky.) State. Mathieu had hoped for a scholarship offer after that season, but it never came. He left the Golden Eagles after one year.
“He surprised everyone except probably himself with what he’s accomplished and what he’s done,” said Tyndall, who took the Southern Miss job shortly after Mathieu left Morehead State.
Now, Mathieu will have a chance to show his former coach just how far he’s come.
“I don’t know if I can speak on that but yeah, definitely, I’d definitely like to play against Donnie Tyndall and Southern Miss,” Mathieu said after Sunday’s game, when the Gophers’ third-round opponent still was being decided.
It’s been a long journey for Mathieu. The 5-9 guard received only a handful of Division II scholarship offers out of high school and essentially begged his way onto the Morehead campus. Tyndall took a chance and made Mathieu a deal: If he finished in the top eight on the team in minutes played, he would give Mathieu a scholarship for his sophomore year.
“He was a nice, little solid player,” Tyndall said. “I thought Dre could eventually play at our level.”
But almost no one thought Mathieu would be where he is now.
The Knoxville, Tenn., native averaged only 2.9 points and 1.5 assists in 12.8 minutes a game that year for Tyndall, but his head wasn’t always on the court.
In January of 2012, Mathieu’s best friend, Phillip “Tookie” Stanford — having lost his father to gun violence and his mother to cancer — took his own life. Mathieu pulled away. He went back to Knoxville for the funeral and to be with his family. While he was there, he called Tyndall. He told him he didn’t want to play basketball anymore.
After some convincing, Mathieu returned to school, and to basketball with a fresh tattoo of a jersey carrying the No. 33 — Stanford’s number — adorned with angel’s wings and a halo.
But when spring came and Mathieu sat down in Tyndall’s office to ask for a scholarship, his coach said no.
Despite missing three games during his trip back home, Mathieu had finished ninth in minutes played. But most of all, Tyndall was concerned that Mathieu wasn’t dedicated.
“Outside of the fact that he didn’t have a huge role on our team, I would have wanted him to prove to me that he was definitely in it for the long haul after what he’d been through with his personal stuff,” Tyndall said.
He told Mathieu if played one more season, he would give him a scholarship. But the guard, not wanting his mother to continue paying for his schooling, pursued junior college instead.
At Central Arizona Community, Mathieu transformed from “nice little solid player” to a legitimate high-major recruit in one season, averaging 17.1 points, 6.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds and becoming a junior college All-America. He turned down offers from UCLA, Memphis and Ole Miss, among others, because he was immediately drawn to play for Minnesota’s Richard Pitino.
Even with the Gophers, he’s exceeded expectations. He quickly claimed the starting role and hasn’t looked back.
“When you bring a junior college kid in it usually takes [more] time to adjust,” Pitino said. “Just think about the road that he’s traveled on to get to where he’s at; it’s pretty impressive. And to do it in the Big Ten at the level he’s done it at, it’s pretty impressive.”
Tyndall hasn’t spoken with Mathieu since the guard left. Occasionally, he’ll catch Minnesota games on TV and marvel at Mathieu’s ability to drive to the basket and finish impossible shots at the rim.
“How prideful I am that he’s having success and that he’s become the great player that he is,” Tyndall said.
Tuesday, he hopes to say that to Mathieu. That, and contain him.
“I’m sure we’ll get his best shot, and that’s understandable,” he said.