Kansas St West Virginia Basketball

WVU’s Emmitt Matthews Jr. (11) puts up a shot against Kansas State last February.

Emmitt Matthews lacked confidence for much of his first year of college basketball last season at West Virginia University, and it showed at times when he was on the floor for the Mountaineers.

Matthews — who originally committed to Connecticut as a 247Sports three-star recruit out of Tacoma, Washington before landing in Morgantown — had always been one of the best players on any team on which he played. So when he was not getting much playing time and not making the most out of what time he did get, the then-freshman started to get down on himself.

As the season went on, however, Matthews’ minutes started to pick up. Some of that was due to the defections and ejections on the West Virginia roster down the stretch last season.

Then, in perhaps one of the most shocking games in any conference tournament, Matthews busted up eventual national runner-up Texas Tech for 28 points, highlighted by an emphatic two-handed dunk over the Red Raiders’ Tariq Owens, as WVU upset the Big 12 regular-season co-champions on its way to the league semifinals.

That game, and more specifically that thunderous slam dunk, was the spark Matthews needed. Now, with a renewed sense of confidence and as West Virginia prepares to embark on a 10-day, three-game tour of Spain, Matthews has caught WVU coach Bob Huggins’ eye with the work he has put in this offseason.

“I told myself that I wanted to learn and come in with open ears and find my way,” Matthews said. “Now I’m just out here playing and having fun. I’m back at the confidence [level] I need to be at. Overall, I’m just working on making shots and being able to get to the basket and create for my teammates more.”

Matthews will have to be versatile for the Mountaineers in the upcoming season, but it’s a task Huggins said the sophomore-to-be has been up to.

“I would say, today, he’s our most improved guy,” Huggins said. “He’s more aggressive. He has gotten stronger. If you look at him, he’s much stronger than what he was and he may have grown a little bit, and he really wants to be good. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Last year, Matthews clawed his way into the starting lineup late in the season and mostly played the role of a traditional swingman at the small forward position. This season, there will almost certainly be more of that role for Matthews, but with a lack of quality depth in the front court behind sophomore Derek Culver, freshman Oscar Tshiebwe and redshirt senior Logan Routt, it could mean Matthews will be asked to step in at power forward when Huggins wants to go with a smaller lineup on the floor.

That has been the case already in practice. When Culver and Tshiebwe are paired together on the same team at Mountaineer workouts, someone has to guard those guys. And Huggins said Matthews, who has grown an inch to be closer to 6-foot-8 and packed on muscle to go from being listed at 195 pounds last season to somewhere north of 200, has been that someone.

“When [Culver and Tshiebwe] don’t play against each other, then Emmitt probably ends up guarding Oscar,” Huggins said. “It’s good for Emmitt, because there are going to be times when we have to play small and Emmitt will probably play some ‘4.’

“He’s a guy who puts a lot of time in, and he wants to be good. I think then when you play and you see the results, kind of the fruits of your labor so to speak, it kind of energizes you a little bit. I think that’s where he is right now.”

Contact Tom Bragg at tom.bragg@wvgazettemail.com or 304-348-4871. Follow him on Twitter @TomBraggSports. Read Tom’s WVU sports blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/wvu/