MINNEAPOLIS — When DeAndre Mathieu first arrived on the University of Minnesota campus this past fall, there were questions about how the Gophers’ new point guard would adjust to the big stage of the Big Ten.
That wasn’t just because Mathieu is listed at 5-foot-9, the shortest player on the roster. The suspicions also had to do with the competition he had faced during his first two years of college basketball. Mathieu left Knoxville and headed north about three hours to play his freshman season at Morehead State in Morehead, Ky. He then spent a year at Central Arizona College before eventually landing a scholarship at Minnesota.
It didn’t take long for Mathieu to squash those doubts about his transition. He’s currently third on Minnesota in scoring (11.6 ppg) and is fourth in the conference in assists per game (4.3) and is one of the tougher Big Ten guards to cover.
As for the transition to life in Minnesota, well, that’s been a different story. After Mathieu scored 18 points to lift the Gophers to a win over rival Wisconsin last week, he was reminded that temperatures in the coming days were expected to dip below zero.
"Oh, man. You shouldn’t have told me that," he smiled. "My coat’s not ready for that. I bought my coat in Knoxville. They told me when you come to Minnesota, you’ve got to buy a Minnesota coat."
While he may still be accumulating the necessary winter wear to survive the arctic Minnesota temperatures during basketball season, Mathieu is embracing his new home. Just like life on the basketball court, life away from it in the winter has forced Mathieu to make some adjustments.
"I try to get to where I’ve got to be as fast as possible," Mathieu said in reference to the cold — although he could have been talking about his quickness on the court, too. "I don’t think you can adjust to it. If my phone in my pocket is vibrating, it’s just going to be vibrating. I’m not taking my hands out of my pocket to answer my phone or anything, because it’s like immediately it just attacks you. The cold air is just ridiculous. I’ve never had anything like this in my life."
Again, Mathieu was referencing the cold when talking about this new challenge in his life, but he very well could have been referencing his success on what has been the biggest stage of his basketball career. He didn’t have a ton of high-level Division I offers after his sophomore year at Central and he wound up committing to Richard Pitino as part of the 31-year-old Gophers coach’s first recruiting class.
Since Mathieu left the Arizona warmth for the chilly Minnesota air, he’s developed into one of the Gophers’ most entertaining players to watch. His quickness is one of the first things you notice when you watch Mathieu as he beats his defender with a sneaky first step. That speed also helps him defensively, where he’s second on the Gophers with 1.7 steals per game.
And even though Mathieu is almost always the smallest players on the court, he has shown time and time again that he has no fear when it comes to attacking the basket. He did that against Wisconsin, challenging the Badgers’ big men in the paint and emerging victorious.
"We established the inside with Mo (Walker) and they did a good job adjusting, taking that away, so then DeAndre, it was kind of his turn to attack the basket," Pitino said after the Wisconsin win. "I think that’s when you kind of figure out if you can be a good team or not when they take one thing away, you go at them with this one. I thought DeAndre was tremendous."
Pitino has referenced Mathieu’s fearlessness many times this season. For someone who was almost always the shortest kid growing up, he had no other choice.
"It’s always been my mentality since I was little," he said. "I’ve always been the smallest guy, so I had to have a big heart and big confidence or I’m not really going to get away with anything."
Of course, there have been some growing pains for Mathieu during his first year at Minnesota. On Sunday in a loss at Nebraska he committed nine turnovers as the Gophers fell 82-78 on the road. As a true pass-first point guard, Mathieu knows he needs to cut down on the turnovers in order to be a leader on the court for Minnesota.
With leading scorer Andre Hollins sidelined with a sprained ankle, more of the responsibilities could fall to Mathieu. He already picked up the scoring slack in Hollins’ absence with his 18-point effort against Wisconsin and a 13-point night in the Nebraska loss.
In a season that began with plenty of question marks, Mathieu has instead become an exclamation point for Minnesota. He may have given up the warmer winters in exchange for the frozen tundra, but Mathieu wouldn’t have it any other way.
"I’m happy I came here," Mathieu said. "On my visit, fans were coming up to me like, ‘Man, be a Gopher.’ It’s all love. They love their Gopher basketball, and I’m loving it."