HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) – Matt Lewis will be forever remembered as one of the best basketball players to wear a James Madison jersey.
Lewis is third in JMU all-time with 1,928 career points. However, Lewis says he was not a top recruit coming out of Bishop O’Connell High School in Woodbridge, Virginia.
“I actually didn’t get my first scholarship offer until my first summer in high school and I was a little freaked out,” Lewis said. “Time was passing. A lot of seniors commit those first two months of their last year of high school, but JMU came and offered me the end of my first year.
Lewis says it was former JMU head coach Louis Rowe who convinced him to join the Dukes. Rowe sold Lewis the idea of early playing time at Harrisonburg.
“It was appealing to me as a high school student, being a freshman in college, the opportunity to come in and play right away,” Lewis said. “That’s really what sold me.”
The decision to join JMU was the right one for Lewis. As a rookie in 2017-18, he was named to the CAA All-Rookie team averaging 14.5 points per game. Lewis improved in sophomore and started every game for the Dukes, averaging 36.3 minutes per game and scored 16.4 points per game. His junior season was even better as Lewis scored 19.0 points and took 5.5 rebounds per game while winning second-team All-CAA honors.
But while Lewis enjoyed individual success in his first three seasons, the Dukes struggled as a team. JMU went 33-62 overall and a manager change came after the 2019-20 season as Rowe and JMU went their separate ways.
“It was really tough because you see the love that Coach Rowe has for his players and the relationship he built with us, he’s the one who brought us in, and seeing him go before our time not finished was really difficult for all of us, ”said Lewis. “Not just me but the class that came with me.”
As an outstanding player for a struggling program, the transfer was an option for Lewis and he says he even considered leaving JMU.
“I mean it was on my mind,” Lewis said. “I’m not going to lie. This is something that I struggled with after my sophomore year just because you know, you see a lot of guys doing it.
Lewis, however, remained with the Dukes. But he had to adjust to a new coaching staff for his senior season after Georgia Southern’s Mark Byington was hired at JMU to replace Rowe.
“I think that was the day he got the job, within three hours of announcing his job he called me and basically expressed his interest and basically told me that he wanted me to stay, ”Lewis said.
Byington added, “I had to talk to Matt about how he was doing and my vision for him. We talked about putting the ball in his hands more and making him a playmaker several times and he wanted to win.
It turns out that the player and the coach were a perfect match. Lewis started the 2020-2021 season as the CAA preseason Player of the Year and his game has lived up to the hype. Lewis led the conference scoring with 19.7 points per game on 46.8% of shooting range. He was named CAA Player of the Year and helped the Dukes win a share of the CAA regular season championship and the No.1 seed in the conference tournament.
“All the struggles we’ve been through and all the adversity we’ve had, it just made it so much sweeter,” Lewis said. “I feel like if I hadn’t had the adversity and all the hard times, I don’t think I would cherish him as much as I do now.”
But there would be no fairytale ending for Lewis at JMU. He suffered a broken kneecap in a win over Hofstra on February 14. The injury ended his college basketball career.
“It was really emotional because the success we had and the momentum we built before the tournament was really big,” said Lewis.
“It was a major void,” Byington said, discussing Lewis’ injury. “He was a guy through whom we ran a lot, who was a leader, but also on the pitch was a very, very good player.
Without Lewis, seeded JMU suffered a one-point loss to Elon in the CAA tournament quarterfinal.
Lewis had the option of returning to JMU for a fifth season with players receiving an additional year of eligibility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he decided to pursue a career in professional basketball in the hopes of play in the NBA.
“The NBA is my ultimate goal, but no matter where I end up, I’m just going to work hard,” Lewis said. “If it’s the NBA I’m grateful otherwise I’m going to do my best but I’m just going to keep my faith and trust in God and that will get me where I need to be.”
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