Former Minnesota point guard Al Nolen was pleased when, early in the Gophers non-conference schedule last year, he watched from the Williams Arena stands as tiny DeAndre Mathieu drove to the paint and peppered the basket with shots.
Nolen, a Minneapolis native and lifelong Gophers fan, was taken aback when he saw the gutty performances and a quick knack for leadership spring from the undersized guard as the season continued.
And even he'll admit it, Nolen was pretty darn surprised when he saw Mathieu maintain that tenacity, heart and occasional dominance throughout the challenging Big Ten slate.
But Nolen -- who is now the Dean of Students for Anthony Middle School in South Minneapolis -- didn't really get to know just who Mathieu is until this summer, when he had the opportunity to spend some time around the fellow floor general.
These days, Nolen comes around campus occasionally, and works out with the Gophers in their open gyms. There, he's watched a dedicated young player work to systematically improve a game that, a year ago, already impressed just about everyone who watched.
"I've got really high, high praise for DeAndre Mathieu," Nolen said in a phone interview on Monday. "I think he's an excellent player, and person. I've talked to him a little bit and he's really a good guy, he's really a hard worker. Watching him out there, he's a great leader on the floor, a lot of teammates look up to him. He's great with ball handling. He can get down there with the bigger players and score down low. I think he's really going to be key for Minnesota next year."
Nolen said he loved watching Mathieu -- the first true point guard Minnesota has had since he expired his eligibility in 2011 -- become the steady presence the Gophers were craving, especially with Andre Hollins enduring late-season injury woes and Austin Hollins largely inconsistent throughout the Big Ten schedule.
It was evident how the team gelled behind their new pacesetter, and how close Mathieu and new coach Richard Pitino became in the process. Nolen's critical eye noticed, too, how it was often Mathieu who represented the team to the media; the player who both bestowed the praise and took the fall.
"As an extension of the coach, you have to be a leader," Nolen said. "And that's exactly what DeAndre is. I'm pretty sure him and coach Pitino have the best relationship on the team because coach Pitino has to rely on him on the floor to basically get the guys to do what [he] wants.
"I think it's very important to come in and ... take the bull by the horn and be that leader, take responsibility, when it's good and when it's bad, be able to take criticism and handle yourself professionally. He's done a great job with that."
Now, Nolen sees a guard working hungrily to take the next steps. Mathieu -- who made his reputation by fearlessly driving into the paint and taking on guys who towered, head a shoulders, over him -- has already added in excess of ten pounds to his compact 5-foot-9 frame, according to strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.
"He's definitely packing a lot of muscle," Nolen said of the guard that averaged 12 points and 4.2 assists in his first Big Ten season after transferring from Central Arizona College. "When I've seen him this summer, he looked a lot stronger, quicker, his jump shot looked great. He looked like he's really been focused and really been working hard."
And when Mathieu leaves the weight room, he goes straight to the court, where he's putting up shot after shot on his own. A year ago, Mathieu shot 51.1 percent from the field, and 48.9 percent from three-point range, but often seemed much more comfortable steamrolling to the rim in traffic than stepping back to take a shot from the perimeter.
"After seeing him play, I know a lot of people thought he needed to improve on his shooting and I'll say this summer, he's definitely improved on that," Nolen said. "He's definitely improved his shot. I think he's just been in the gym a lot more. With shooting, it's confidence he's getting in the gym and getting that confidence to knock down that shot."
The workload, along with the Knoxville native's gritty style of play and seemingly limitless passion, is enough to earn Mathieu a new nickname, at least when Nolen is around.
"I like to call him Mighty Mouse," the alum said. "He's the littlest guy on the floor, but then he'll surprise you, going down there with the big guys, coming in real physical."
Nolen would be lying, too, if he didn't say the rising senior reminds him a little of himself: a tough point guard who doesn't shy away from contact, and who seems to salivate at mismatches and folks who don't believe he's good enough.
But because he respects Mathieu's intellect and work ethic so much, Nolen said the only words close to advice he's doled out to the younger guard are simply reminders to keep being his hard-nosed self.
Next year, Nolen knows, with the Big Ten having been put on notice last season, th goal will only become more challenging. Everyone's anticipation will grow, including Nolen's.
"He definitely was a piece that they needed and he's really exceeded my expectations," Nolen said. "So I have higher ones for him now, this next year, knowing how good he is."