After a prove-the-doubters-wrong 19-11 year, a 72-45 victory over Youngstown State in the regular-season finale last Saturday and a bye that advanced his Wright State team into tonight’s second round of the Horizon League tournament against the same Penguins team his Raiders beat six days ago, it’s not surprising Matt Vest has considerable enthusiasm.
And yet that unbridled happiness hides a hurt.
“I feel great about our team,” said the junior guard out of Chaminade Julienne High School. “Last year we were down at the end of the year (the Raiders finished 13-19 and lost seven of their last nine) and it was almost like, ‘Oh man, we’re finally getting this over.’
“But now we’re so excited, so confident that we’re going to play well. It’s a great feeling, Man, right now I could play for two more months.”
Maybe he could, but he can’t.
Although he’s not spoken about this publicly before, he admitted he will undergo a major hip surgery next month that he said will require at least four to six months of recuperation and rehab.
“It’s pretty much identical to what Alex Rodriguez had done,” he said of the January surgery the New York Yankees star underwent. “Like him, I’ve got two things they need to fix.
“I have a torn labrum and also there’s a structural thing — an FAI (Femoral Acetabular Impingement) they call it — that’s a bone impingement in my hip.
“The hip socket is like a cup and the ball on the end of the hip bone fits in there and it moves freely. But my hip bone is more egg-shaped on the end so when it moves it’s bone rubbing on bone So they’re going to have to shave down the bone.
“I have good days with it and bad. Some days it feels great, others I get up and it really hurts. But my whole family has played college basketball — my dad, my sister, my brother — so I know it’s part of the deal. People get injured and people deal with it.”
And yet when you know this about Vest — and know the way he has stoically kept it almost solely to himself — it makes you appreciate him all the more this season.
His numbers aren’t great — he averages 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds — but he is second on the team in assists, steals and rebounds and is one of the best defenders on a defensive-minded Raiders team that allows 58.2 points per game and is ranked 20th of 345 NCAA Division I teams in that category.
The 6-foot-5 Vest may not be a big-time scorer or highlight-reel performer, but the unheralded and unknown things he does for his team are a big reason the Raiders became the surprise team in the Horizon League this season.
After the Raiders lost seven players off last year’s team – one to graduation, six who transferred elsewhere — the rest of the league voted them to finish dead last in the conference standings. Instead they finished third of nine teams.
Before the season coach Billy Donlon called in his six returning players and stressed he needed them to be leaders as he padded out the roster with a bunch of freshmen and two late-addition junior college players.
Vest especially took his coach’s plea to heart.
He’s done so on the court, quietly playing through an injury and never missing a start in 30 games, and he’s done so in the practice gym.
“He set the tone the first week of practice,” Donlon said. “He pushed himself to become a vocal leader and when he saw something he didn’t like, he spoke up. He was in a couple of scuffles early on. I remember one time he ended up rolling around with (freshman guard) Bobo Drummond. You might think that was a bad thing, but it was good.
“Matt is the guy everybody on the team wants to be around. When you get a bunch of players together, some like country music, some might like hip hop, but everybody likes Matt and that’s why people pay attention to what he does.
“He had reached a point where he was fed up with last season and he was going to do everything he could to make it different this year. Early on he was saying to some of the new guys, this is not how we do it here, fellas.
“And I’ve got to tell you, no coaching in the world can do what Matt Vest did there. He showed a pride in the program that rubbed off on other guys right away.”
Vest blushed when the scuffle was brought up. He was taken aback that word had gotten out.
“Something like that happens all the time on any college team,” he said. “I just wanted to hold my teammates accountable. Bobo is a really competitive guy and I’m competitive, too. It was during practice and I wasn’t happy with effort and then he wanted to guard me after that and it just escalated for a moment.
“In the end it all worked out and it helped our team. I think the younger guys might have thought to themselves, ‘Wow, this is serious stuff. The older guys do care and have a lot of pride in the program.’ ”
And no one is more tied to the Raiders than is Vest.
His dad, Mark, was a hall-of-fame player for the Raiders in the mid-1980s. Although he played at WSU just three seasons, he averaged 17.8 points a game and is eighth on the all-time scoring list with 1,559 points.
Later on he did the radio broadcasts of Raiders games for several years.
“As long as I can remember my dad was doing the games on the radio,” Vest remembered. “From the fourth or fifth grade on I’d come along with him. We’d get here early and I’d try to get out on the court and be the ball boy or rebound for guys like Vernard Hollins — he was one of my favorites — or the Doliboa brothers.
“And even though I’d play with Vaughn Duggins one year when I finally got here, when I was in high school I used to look up to him. I’ve been around Wright State basketball a long time. I’ve got a lot of pride in the school. I didn’t want to have another down year and have the program falter on my watch.”
This season it certainly has not.
And because he’s had such a big hand in that resurgence – and, I guess you could say, a hip – it’s no wonder he wants to keep playing.