WHSV Sports Presents: All-Time Great - Lewis leaves legacy at JMU
HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Matt Lewis will always be remembered as one of the best basketball players to put on a James Madison jersey.
Lewis ranks third all-time in scoring at JMU with 1,928 career points. However, Lewis says he was not a high-profile recruit coming out of Bishop O’Connell High School in Woodbridge, Virginia.
“I actually didn’t get my first scholarship offer until my junior summer of high school and I was kind of in a panic mode,” said Lewis. “Time was winding down. A lot of seniors commit that first couple months of their senior year of high school but JMU came and offered me late my junior year.”
Lewis says it was former JMU head coach Louis Rowe who convinced him to join the Dukes. Rowe sold Lewis on the idea of early playing time in Harrisonburg.
“It was attractive for me as a high school senior, being a freshman in college, the opportunity to come in and play right away,” said Lewis. “That was really what sold me.”
The decision to join JMU was the right one for Lewis. As a freshman in 2017-2018, he was named to the CAA All-Rookie Team while averaging 14.5 points per game. Lewis improved as a sophomore and started every game for the Dukes, averaged 36.3 minutes per game, and scored 16.4 points per contest. His junior season was even better as Lewis scored 19.0 points and grabbed 5.5 rebounds per game while earning Second Team All-CAA honors.
But while Lewis had individual success during his first three seasons, the Dukes struggled as a team. JMU went 33-62 overall and a coaching change was made following the 2019-2020 season as Rowe and JMU mutually parted ways.
“It was definitely rough because you see the love Coach Rowe has for his players and the relationship he built with us, he’s who brought us in, and to see him go before our time was done was really hard for all of us,” said Lewis. “Not only me but the class who came in with me.”
As a standout player for a struggling program, transferring was an option for Lewis and he says he even thought about leaving JMU.
“I mean it was in my mind,” said Lewis. “I’m not gonna lie. It was something that I struggled with really after my sophomore year just because you know, you see a lot of guys doing it.”
Lewis, however, stayed with the Dukes. But he had to adapt to a new coaching staff for his senior season after Georgia Southern’s Mark Byington was hired at JMU to replace Rowe.
“I think it was it was the day he got the job, within three hours after they announced he got the job, he called me and basically expressed his interest and basically told me he wanted me to stay,” said Lewis.
Byington added: “I had to talk to Matt about how he fit and my vision for him. We talked about putting the ball in his hands more and making him a point guard a lot of times and he wanted to win.”
It turns out the player and coach were a perfect match. Lewis started the 2020-2021 season as CAA Preseason Player of the Year and his play lived up to the hype. Lewis led the conference in scoring with 19.7 points per game on 46.8% field goal shooting. He was named the CAA Player of the Year and helped the Dukes earn a share of the CAA Regular-Season Championship and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
“All the struggles that we went through and all the adversity that we had, it made things so much more sweeter,” said Lewis. “I feel like if I didn’t have the adversity and all the tough times, I don’t think I would cherish it as much as I do now.”
But there would be no fairytale ending for Lewis at JMU. He suffered a broken kneecap during a win over Hofstra on February 14. The injury ended his college basketball career.
“It was really emotional because the success that we had and the momentum that we built going into the tournament was really big,” said Lewis.
“That was a major void,” said Byington, when discussing of Lewis’ injury. “That was a guy we ran a lot of things through, who was a leader but also on the court was a really, really good player.”
Without Lewis, top-seeded JMU suffered a one-point, season-ending loss to Elon in the quarterfinals of the CAA Tournament.
Lewis had the option to return to JMU for a fifth season with players receiving an extra year of eligibility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic but he has decided to pursue a career in professional basketball with hopes of playing in the NBA.
“The NBA is my ultimate goal but no matter where I end up, I am just going to work hard,” said Lewis. “If it is the NBA, I am thankful, if not I am going to do the best I can but I am just going to keep my faith and trust in God and that will just carry me to wherever I need to be.”
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