Depending on who you talk to, DeAndre Mathieu was never supposed to play at this level.
At 5-9 (he tries to claim 5-11, but the trainer disagrees), he was considered, early on, as too small for the game.
"No doubt, all my life I have felt like people underestimated me because of my height," he said. "When I was coming out of high school I felt overlooked by everyone. That really motivated me a little more because nobody gave me the attention I felt I deserved."
The spotlight, now, has landed.
As the starting point guard for a Big Ten team, Mathieu is in a position it seems hard even for him to believe at times. When talking to the media, the guard comes off as introspective, incredible humble and genuinely grateful for his current circumstances. He's certainly made the most of them so far.
After joining a team whose biggest strength was its returning backcourt, Mathieu earned his spot at the point, with the acting floor general, Andre Hollins -- the statistical leader of the team -- switching to shooting guard. In that role, so far, he has thrived. Mathieu has impressed since the first public scrimmage and all the way through Tuesday's win over Montana. He's used his at times breathtaking speed to score in transition and set up good shots for his teammates, or to appear to come out of nowhere and swipe balls right out of stunned opponents' hands. In every game, he's been a differencemaker. In the opener against Lehigh, he gathered nine assists to three turnovers (he also grabbed nine in an exhibition, to zero slips). He also had three steals in that game.
Mathieu pointed out that his job is made infinitely easier by the fact that he's pitching to a pair of potential All-Big Ten guards, who pad his stats by scoring a lot.
"They make it easy on me as a point guard," he said. "I hope I make it easy for them as wings off the balls, scoring and getting the ball and pitching ahead to them, getting them easy looks and getting them going in games."
Last night against Montana, Mathieu displayed his propensity in getting to the rim as well, and getting to the line. He finished with 15 points and shot 5-for-6 from the stripe.
And none of those stats relay the impact he's had on simply exhausting defenses; just purely wearing opponents out.
"He keeps putting pressure on the defense – that’s the biggest thing that he does, I think more than any other guy on our team," Pitino said. "We get the ball out quick to him and he drives it hard.
"For a kid who played junior college but has not been used to playing in this type of environment and at this level -- he understands everything that we say, he brings it every day in practice. He’s a great kid, has a great attitude. I think he’s been phenomenal."
Right now, it seems like a dream come true for a player who has obviously put the work in. But there is a lot more challenges to face, and Pitino is careful to temper expectations for his new guard.
This weekend, the Gophers head to Richmond for their first road game of the season, yet another test for Mathieu in a year that will be full of them.
"He hasn’t done it on the road," Pitino said. "He’s done it two times at home. How are these guys going to react on the road in a hostile environment? That’s something I have not seen. So it’s still a big question mark. So we’ll learn a lot more about this team on Saturday night."