Oct. 13, 2011
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, July 28, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2011-12 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
By MICHELE DANNO
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Matt Gatens has dreamt of becoming a professional athlete for as long as he can remember. Entering his senior season as a member of the University of Iowa men's basketball program, Gatens' dreams are within reach.
What started with a Little Tikes hoop, plush ball, and untiring work ethic, has blossomed into an athletic success story almost too perfect to be real.
A hometown hero, son of a UI basketball letterman, Iowa's 2008 "Mr. Basketball," all-conference academic scholar and offensive leader -- the senior basketball star is the pure embodiment of Hawkeye pride. Still, that's not to say his road to success has been without challenges.
Even with two coaching staff turnovers, the coming and going of teammates, a debilitating hand injury his junior year, and an entire mindset/strategy change of the game, pretty much the only thing that has stayed consistent is Gatens' unwavering commitment to the program.
Statistically, there's no doubting that Gatens is the real deal.
His success at Iowa started from the moment he stepped on campus, as he was selected to the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2009, the same year he set the single-season record for free throw percentage at 90.4. He then followed it up by earning an honorable mention All-Big Ten nod as a sophomore.
Gatens' reliable offensive skills have been one of the elements the Hawkeyes could rely on. He enters his senior season after leading the Big Ten in free throw percentage (76-of-87, .874); 63 times during his career Gatens has scored in double figures.
This consistency and dedication does not go unrecognized, as second-year head coach Fran McCaffery speaks highly of the team veteran for surviving four years of battles.
"You have to have somebody who has been through the wars and has been successful, and that's Matt for us," McCaffery said. "He's had a lot of pressure on him. The way he responded from a bad injury to being our leading scorer and best defensive player to being able to perform consistently on the road says a lot about him and his experience."
Gatens is excited about the team he's leading for his final season.
"Coach McCaffery came my sophomore year and totally changed my body and the way I played," said Gatens. "Maybe if I would have had that since freshman year, to play four years in one style, I would have been a lot better... but things happen.
"I think having (McCaffery) here has been a great move for my game and my team's game. The program is going in the right direction."
Entering his second year with the current coaching regime, Gatens feels more comfortable with McCaffery both on a friendship and professional level. He's taken on a leadership role to push the team forward to its unanimous goal of making the NCAA Tournament.
Driven by postseason dreams, this year's team plans to focus on McCaffery's up-tempo style by utilizing their size and speed with "continuous movement" on the court.
"Coach has talked about getting up and down more, and with our conditioning this time of year that's definitely what we're working on," Gatens said. "Our practices are a lot about getting on the break and running up and down -- it's our philosophy."
Clearly, nobody knows more about ups-and-downs than Gatens.
One of only two players to stand by Iowa basketball through its unpredictability, Gatens was named team captain for 2011. McCaffery said he has gained respect from the younger players by setting a positive example and "only speaking when he needs to speak."
Gatens' story proves that the best truly are the first to come and the last to leave.
The Iowa City native has been formally committed to the Hawkeyes since ninth grade, but his dedication to Iowa began much earlier than that. Although his parents -- a former UI basketball player and cheerleader -- gave him their blessing to choose whatever school he pleased, he always knew that Iowa was the right fit for him.
"It meant a lot to me to carry on the legacy my family made here," said Gatens, whose older sister played on the Hawkeye women's soccer team. "I was around this place so much growing up watching the Hawkeyes play. I developed great relationships with the administration and wanted to stick with them and carry on that Hawkeye pride."
And that pride runs deep -- uniting him to his family, his teammates, his hometown, and faithful Hawkeye fans.
Gatens recalled last year's home victory over sixth-ranked Purdue as a defining moment in his Iowa career. The magnetizing energy radiating throughout Carver- Hawkeye Arena reflected everything he loves about Iowa and reaffirmed his decision to stay here.
"That was a moment everyone was proud of, even the fans, and it felt great having them there on the court," said Gatens. "The main thing I love about Iowa City is the type of people that are here -- they're different, they're supportive, and people really care about you.
"There's some loyal fans out there that have stuck with us through the tough times, and the better we do, the more people will come out to support us. Iowa fans are eager to see a winning team again, and we're looking forward to more moments like that in the future."
With Carver-Hawkeye Arena's new state-of-the-art facilities, a solid coaching staff, and a top-ranked recruiting class for 2012, the future looks bright for Iowa basketball. Gatens said he's proud to have been part of the Hawkeyes' transitional years, and he's confident that the program will "get to that top level" again -- even if he won't be a part of it.
After 21 years in Iowa City, it's almost time for this Hawkeye to leave the nest. As committed as Gatens has been to Iowa, his commitment to his sport is unparalleled. He'll follow basketball wherever it takes him.
The senior marketing and sports studies major plans to graduate in May, but said he's in no hurry to enter the "real world" for fear of what he'll miss on the court.
"Everyone I've talked to who stopped playing wishes they hadn't, so I'm going to enjoy it as long as I can," Gatens said. "If I found the right opportunity to play overseas, I'd play there. I'm in a good spot right now, so as long as I can keep playing, that's my goal down the road."