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Like He Never Left: Emmitt Matthews Jr.'s Return

Country Roads always bring you back home, and WVU's Emmitt Matthews Jr. knows that all too well.

It's been 562 days since Emmitt Matthews Jr. adorned the old Gold and Blue.

Now, after a stint with his home state's Washington Huskies, the 6'7" forward is back in Morgantown and itching to play for head coach Bob Huggins again.

Matthews Jr. entered West Virginia as an 18-year-old, unaware of what the WVU Men's Basketball team, and the world, had to offer.

"You come in and you're a child," Matthews Jr. said. "I never lived on my own before. The most I did on my own was wash the dishes and do my laundry back home. Coming out here, everything is a big shift, so you know, going from that, which was 2018, all the way to now, you just kind of learn to be an adult. You grow into an adult and you handle things a lot different."

That growth phase required him to leave the Mountaineers after a trio of seasons. He had work to do on himself before he was ready to give that effort to the game.

So... he moved back home.

He left his younger sister, Ahmani, still enrolled at West Virginia. She begged him to come back, but Matthews Jr. was already set on a temporary break from West Virginia.

"She called me all the time last year like, 'Why did you leave? Why did you leave?' I had to do it for me," Matthews Jr. said.

Ahmani wasn't the only one counting down the days to Matthews Jr.'s return.

While in the Huskies' purple and gold, Matthews Jr. said that Huggins was waiting in the wings, watching his improvements, and cheering him on from afar.

"I took my time with it," Matthews Jr. said of his decision to transfer back. "At the end of the day, this is the best decision for me. I knew where I wanted to be. This was home to me for three years. I wish I never would have left the first time. Huggs told me in my exit meeting before I left last time, he said, 'The grass isn't always greener.' I take that literally. Whatever situation fits you, fits you, and everybody's different. 

"Everybody has things that they like, they don't like, or whatever. I love everything about being here: the fanbase, the way we play, the style of play, how loud the Coliseum gets when you've got a sold-out game, the roadtrips when you go places and fans at the other schools hate you because you're the hardest-playing team in the nation. It's those kinds of things that have stuck with me since the first year I was here."

Despite averaging 31 minutes per game at Alaska Airlines Arena, dreams of the Coliseum and learning from Huggins kept Matthews Jr. yearning to be back.

"I think a lot of people paint the narrative that when you transfer from a school, it's always got to be a bad thing, and more than half the time, I don't think it's really that," Matthews said. "Me and Huggs' relationship never changed. We always stayed talking. I watched a bunch of the games last year."

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After starting all 31 games for the Huskies and registering 11.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per, Matthews Jr. made the decision to, once more, enter the transfer portal.

When rumors started hinting at a possible reconvening with the Mountaineers, fans seemed set on Matthews Jr.'s return. Matthews Jr. was fending off offers from across the country, but he came to a stark realization during last season's Senior Night:

"The main thing that stuck out for me was Senior Night," Matthews said. "Being back home, you'd think that you have a lot of people who come support and show you that love that you want, but nothing compares to being here. Senior Night here, you walk out, you've got Huggs at the end of the carpet. The fans really show up and they show you a lot of love... When I walked out on Senior Night, I blinked my eyes and I was like, 'What if I was in the Coliseum right now?'

"That's one thing I'm really looking forward to this year," Matthews Jr. continued. "Seeing Huggs at the end, I'll give him a big hug and take a picture with my family and everything. That's something that I really want to do."

A now-22-year-old Matthews Jr. is anxiously awaiting his return to the Coliseum. Playing for Huggins was truly the only way his college career could have ended.

"You're playing for the guy. You're playing for the man" Matthews Jr. said of playing for the Hall of Famer. "I think he's the best to do it, so when you're playing for a guy like that, you pick his brain. He has so much knowledge up there. He's been around for so long. He knows so many people. It's almost like anything he tells you, it's right."

Matthews Jr. worked diligently to improve his mental health during the year away. He rehabbed a nagging shoulder injury and improved his jump shot under the tutelage of UW assistant coach and NBA vet Quincy Pondexter. WVU teammate Kedrian Johnson, the sole remaining player from Matthews Jr.'s first term, has already noticed the shift.

"He's shooting the ball a lot better," Johnson said. "He's changed his jump shot, so he's improved at shooting the ball. Ball handling. Really, his overall game has improved since he left."

Matthews Jr. fits back into the Mountaineers' game plan so well that it's almost like he never left.

"His culture is our culture, which helps us a bunch," Huggins said.

The culture at West Virginia always seemed to fit Matthews Jr.'s style. Calm, cool, and collected, but fierce. The ice to South Carolina transfer and long-time friend Erik Stevenson's fire.

"Life is crazy," Matthews Jr. said. "You never know what you're going to do or who you're going to run into or where life's going to take you, but obviously, life took me back here, and I'm going to make the most out of the opportunity I do have."

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