Eleven days ago, Dixon native Matt Ross finally hit the basketball big-time he’d been waiting so long for.
And while he wasn’t entirely pleased with his performance in Chicago State’s 92-65 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame on national television, that’s been the exception to the rule so far for the former Dukes and Skyhawks standout.
In the first 10 games of his Division I college basketball career, the 2010 Dixon High School graduate is leading Chicago State in rebounding (7.3 rpg), blocked shots (1.0 bpg) and minutes played (30.8 mpg), and is the Cougars’ second-leading scorer (10.8 ppg).
“I knew when I came in that they’d be looking at me to be one of the key guys,” Ross said Thursday in a phone interview, “and this is kind of always how I planned it. I knew coming in from juco that the game would be a lot faster and the guys would be a lot stronger, and I prepared myself for the transition as best I could.”
“Growing up, everybody wants to be in the spotlight, get on TV, have success at the D-I level. It’s been a good start so far; the only game I wish I could have back was that Notre Dame game.”
That Nov. 26 loss to the Fighting Irish is the highest-profile game so far for the Cougars (2-8), and Ross finished with three points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in front of an ESPNU audience.
But he showed his resiliency Wednesday night. Chicago State led DePaul by 14 at halftime, only to have the Blue Demons rally for a 74-64 victory, but Ross had 20 points, 10 boards, three steals and two blocks in his second straight double-double.
After the marked improvement he and his team made between the Notre Dame and DePaul games, Ross is eager to see what the Cougars can do against a few more big-name programs. He won’t have to wait long; Chicago State plays road games against Oregon State (Dec. 16), No. 7 Ohio State (Dec. 29) and No. 21 UNLV (Jan. 3, 2013) in the next month.
“We had a whole new group of guys coming in, and we’re all really quickly learning how each one of us plays and what we like to do on the court,” Ross said. “Things are definitely starting to fall into place now, and I feel like we’re going to start clicking really soon. As long as we keep our composure, stick together as one unit and trust each other like a family, I think we’ll have a really strong season.”
While the team is still finding its comfort zone, Ross has felt comfortable since the day he set foot on the Chicago State campus. He already knew a couple of his new teammates, helping ease the transition from Sauk Valley Community College to the big city.
On the court, it’s the up-tempo style that longtime Skyhawks coach Russ Damhoff has long employed that has helped Ross adjust to the bigger, faster, stronger players in Division I basketball.
“The run-and-gun type of team we were at Sauk, that’s basically how it is here at Chicago,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of freedom in this offense. I put a lot of time in the offseason into my ballhandling and my outside shooting, and now, I feel comfortable stepping out to shoot 3s or driving to the basket, not just banging with guys in the paint.
“But it’s not just me. We’ve got a whole team of guys who know their roles, know what to do and when to do it. As long as we don’t try to step out of character, just take the shots and do the things during games like we work on every practice, we’re going to keep getting better and better.”
As soon as Ross started looking at Chicago State as an option, he knew it would be a good fit. Now, with news this week that the Cougars will be joining the Western Athletic Conference next year, Ross says the added exposure and challenges of playing in a well-established conference is only going to heighten his experience – which has so far been panning out exactly as he hoped.
“Coming in, I really liked how the coaches recruited me and the team accepted me,” Ross said. “They were always honest, never hiding anything, and it’s been the same way since I got here. I love playing at this level and doing it so close to home, and it’s working out real great.”
High school: Dixon, class of 2010
Junior college: Sauk Valley, class of 2012
College: Chicago State
Ht./Wt.: 6-foot-7, 205 pounds
Season stats: 10.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.0 blocks in 30.8 minutes per game
FYI: Leads Cougars in rebounding, blocks and minutes played, and is second on the team in scoring. … Led Sauk Valley in rebounding and blocks during both seasons there, and also led the Skyhawks in scoring as team MVP last season. … Led Dixon to second winning record in 5 seasons in 2010, as team went 15-13 and finished second in NCIC Reagan.