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John Blanchette: Jordan Mathews’ ride with Gonzaga has been short but sweet

UPDATED: Wed., March 22, 2017, 11:25 p.m.

Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews shoots free throws as coach Mark Few, left, looks on during an open practice Wednesday in San Jose. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews shoots free throws as coach Mark Few, left, looks on during an open practice Wednesday in San Jose. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Over the years, Gonzaga basketball has been the ultimate party mix. Charismatic big men, exotic imports from six continents, steady Eddie guards, second-chancers, glue guys, rock-star celebrities.

And Jordan Mathews.

It’s not that he doesn’t fit the mold – there is no mold. He’s a knockdown shooter, but the Bulldogs have had those. He’s blunt and honest and thoughtful – but other Zags have dabbled in those, too – and for a college athlete uncommonly engaged socially and politically.

“As a college athlete, you live in this bubble where everybody loves you, but some people only love you because you wear the jersey,” he said. “They don’t necessarily love you because you’re a human being. So when you take the jersey off, if you’re not socially aware, then what are you? Are you just drifting?”

He’s also a one-and-done.

Not the Kentucky freshman bound for the NBA drive-by. The new bring-your-degree-and-win-a- championship, graduate-transfer one-and-done.

Przemek Karnowski has been on campus seemingly forever. But Jordan?

We hardly knew ye.

That’s a relative thing. For a 34-1 team that rose to No. 1 in the country for a month, there’s been no shortage of scrutiny, and as a starter in every game and the team’s third-leading scorer, Mathews has been at the heart of it. But in the space of four more wins – or with the next loss – Mathews’ time at GU will be done after just seven months on campus.

So maybe it’s time to ask: How’s it all worked out?

“It’s paid off – more than I ever could have imagined,” he said.

That’s an unqualified endorsement easily grasped given the surroundings – the Gonzaga locker room at the SAP center, where the Bulldogs have a date with West Virginia on Thursday in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. In the twilight of such a charmed season, what’s to second-guess?

But Mathews is a whole-truther, and the whole truth is nuanced.

Mathews took advantage of the NCAA’s allowance for graduates to finish their eligibility at another school – as Byron Wesley did two years earlier – to transfer from Cal last summer. It required him finishing his degree in three years, which took some humping. It also required soul-searching. Recruited to the school by Mike Montgomery, however, he played his last two years under Cuonzo Martin and found it “difficult.”

“I think he saw himself, I don’t want to say ‘not wanted,’” said Mathews’ father, Phil, “but as a senior, he just didn’t feel that it would be good for him.”

The choice of Gonzaga was not a surprise – the Zags had recruited him out of high school before “deciding not to go on him,” his father said. Mathews wanted a chance to win and play deep into the NCAAs. And his father and GU assistant Donny Daniels were longtime friends – roommates as young coaches at Cal State Fullerton. Later the head coach at San Francisco, Phil Mathews had also coached against Mark Few for nine years so “he was going with people I trust,” he said.

But there were some challenges.

“To be honest, it’s hard to get up for teams like San Diego twice,” Jordan Mathews said. “It just is. In the Pac-12, you’re going against Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, Utah – there are no off-nights. Coming from that, it can be difficult.”

And there were system and stylistic changes.

“We throw it into the post a lot, obviously, and we didn’t do that much at Cal,” he said. “And we have two ball-handlers. I was guarded differently before and there was more movement in the offense. But you still have to find ways to score.”

But integrating the grad transfer can be a challenge for the coaching staff, too – as Daniels noted, “Getting the best out of what he does all the time, because you don’t have four years to get him into the fold.”

So, yes, Mathews’ scoring is down almost three points a game from his Cal years, and his 3-point percentage has slipped. Yet he’s also become a more attentive rebounder and much more devoted defender. The 2017 Zags, he points out, are nothing if not a tribute to sacrifice.

“The lack of egos,” Mathews said, “make being around these guys the best part of all this.”

He still references the Hayden Lake fall campout the Zags used to launch their season – a tent-pitching ordeal with Killian Tillie and Jeremy Jones, and giving up his cellphone (“No Snapchat? I just lost it”). Just as treasured: winning the WCC tournament because “I hadn’t done that before, and it just brings you closer.”

But that’s always been Jordan Mathews.

“He was the kid in high school who always rode back from road games with the team,” Phil Mathews said. “You know how a lot of kids just go home with their parents? He’d be on the bus – every time.”

He still is.

His ride at Gonzaga’s been short, but Jordan Mathews wants to make it last as long as possible.


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