A belated letter in defense of Matt Carlino, college basketball’s former foremost enigma

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He was supposed to be the next Jimmer. That was what first got me locked on to Matt Carlino, almost four years ago.

This was December of 2011, as anticipation grew for BYU’s newest eligible player, a freshman transfer from UCLA. I knew a bit of Carlino; I’d heard he was a talented guard and a savvy scorer. If he could recreate some of the fireworks seen from that Fredette kid, I knew I’d be a huge fan.

Came the rumblings from Provo — after Carlino had transferred from Westwood, just weeks into the ‘10–11 season, he’d practiced with the Cougars during his NCAA-mandated redshirt season. Most notably, he’d guarded Jimmer during scrimmages, and tales began to spring that this kid could do some serious scoring of his own.

Oh, what we were to find.

During Carlino’s first abridged season in Provo, I was finishing up at Gonzaga. I was writing for the school paper, and as the Zags prepared to host the Cougars for the first time at the Kennel (BYU had switched in basketball from the Mountain West to the West Coast Conference ahead of the season), I decided to write about Carlino, whom I’d just watched torch USF, on the road the previous week to the tune of 30 points — including the game-winner. Before first media timeout on the Hilltop, dude was 6-of-6 from the field. He finished 13-of-19 from the floor. And these were mostly jumpers.

Sportswriting is rife with legend-crafting, which I think has something to do with the desire of this genre of writers to stem the fraying thread from the golden years of their youth. That being said, there is something about sports that brings out the hype you once felt more often. Call it, Friday afternoon, sunny, just got out of school for the weekend, headed out with friends. When Carlino really got going, it was like a video game character binging on power-ups.

He grew exponentially more powerful with each subsequent shot that fell through the hoop. The consummate feel, the flow. Rhythm all his own. It was breathtaking. Maybe it’s Super Mario, vaulting through pixellated Nintendo airspace in pursuit of those gold coins. The ping-ping-ping that seemed to resound through gyms across America as Carlino stacked up points.

People described the effect in different ways. When I asked then-Gonzaga assistant Ray Giacoletti about Carlino, for that afore-mentioned article, he feigned a fade-away jumper from the left baseline. As Giacoletti put it, Carlino is one of those kids that takes high-difficulty shots coaches hate — until they go in.

For a brief side-note, it was a defensive performance on Carlino that helped cement Jordan Giusti’s cult-legend status for me the following season. Then a redshirt-freshman former walk-on at Saint Mary’s, Giusti his task to heart in a home game against BYU, holding Carlino to two points, and just five shots from the field. There was a point late in the game, when BYU on the rocks, that Carlino used a break in the action to head toward the Cougars’ hoop and hoist a short jump shot. It was just the second time he’d seen the ball go through the hoop the entire night.

That was a credit to Giusti’s defensive work. Aaron Craft got all the accolades that season, as the premier “stopper”, but I’d have taken Giusti over him on the defensive end every time.

The next month of that season, Carlino was back to his best, leading the Cougars to the NIT semifinals. In four games in the tournament, he averaged 18 points, 6.3 rebounds, and eight assists.

***

On the wide spectrum of shots hoisted during the course of a basketball game, there are those that draw praise — from coaches and fans alike. The ones that stem from good ball movement and canny selection. Advanced metrics go green over them.

Then there’s the ones that careen toward the red. The renegades that cause coaches to lose hair, gesticulate wildly, why-would-you-ever-do-that, Who-are-you-JR-Smith? kinda deal. Vision is scary. What makes the likes of Carlino so baffling is the fact that we can’t see what they see. They know they can hit the shots they’re taking, no matter the degree of difficulty. It is that which makes them unique, and, for a spectator, far more entertaining than the rest.

Carlino was the type of player whom, to pull a quote from Eminem more than a decade ago, polluted the airwaves. Like Eminem, he was a genius, and when he got going…🔥🔥🔥

Here’s a favorite memory. BYU at Stanford, Midnight Madness, November 2013. Maples Pavilion is the scene. Minutes remained until game time, and as his BYU teammates shuffled off the court and into the locker room, Carlino stayed behind. He moved to the corner, and began hoisting threes. One missed. Then, the next. Carlino was undeterred. Just a bit puzzled. He was trying to find a line on rhythm, that fickle fiend of shooters past and present. Then, he caught the beat. He sank a shot sweetly, turned toward the tunnel and joined his teammates.

Through the first three minutes, Carlino had three points — and two turnovers. Then, at 16:23, the genius. Carlino drove right, shrugged off some stingy defense from Stanford stopper Anthony Brown and rose for a layup with his right hand. A Cardinal post player had risen to meet him, but Carlino anticipated the contact and met the post perfectly in mid-air. As both descended from the apex of their leaps, Carlino released his shot perfectly so it wouldn’t get blocked. It went in.

He scored 26 points that night. There was a stretch, midway through the second half, when he was downright unstoppable, and it was no coincidence that BYU broke the game open for good. Speaking afterward, Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins lamented his team’s defensive approach — he hadn’t ever seen them beaten this badly at home. At the same time, how often are you going to be inundated by three players (Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth alongside Carlino) having career-best-level nights?

It was BYU at their best, and Carlino made that thing hum.

As I followed BYU throughout the season, game to game, I had the chance to talk with Carlino a few times. It wasn’t all rosy — midway through ‘13–14, Carlino became BYU’s sixth man, but he was playing point guard, which suited him.

Here he was, after a win on the road over USF.

Yeah, it’s just, I’ve played point guard my whole life, so when I start with the ball, it’s more comfortable for me, I couldn’t believe how much different it was to play off the ball those couple games. The rhythm was just way different, so, I feel way more comfortable playing at the 1.”

I’m just playing. Just doing everything I can to help the team win. So, whatever coach wants, that’s what I’m going to be. I think it’s just good for me that I’m back at the point. My minutes before were at the 2, and it was really awkward for me. Now that I’m playing the point, it’s a lot easier for me to play, and the team’s rolling a lot better.

***

Carlino graduated BYU in June of 2014 with a degree in exercise science. Soon, he’d decided to transfer to Marquette, where he would pursue a one-year graduate program in leadership studies that BYU didn’t offer. He had one year of eligibility with the Golden Eagles, which coincided with Steve Wojciechowski’s first year as head coach.

As I sat down to cover one of my first WCC games for the ‘14–15 season, a radio announcer was talking shop with a colleague. They turned toward BYU this season — so much better off without Carlino, this man said. It was a frequent refrain I had heard, and would continue to hear. Better off without him.

And yet.

For a short-staffed Marquette team, Carlino became a beacon. Yes, there were more displays of the point-a-minute potential, perhaps most notably against Georgia Tech in the Orlando Classic (it really should still be called the Old Spice Classic). Carlino’s final line: 38 points in 33 minutes, in a Marquette win.

Well, Carlino said afterward in a video taken by Marquette’s official athletics site, Wojciechowski had told him he needed to step up after a tight 62–57 win over NJIT. So, step up he did.

“Look,” Wojciechowski said, speaking next, “Matt’s a heckuva player. He’s one of the best guards in college basketball. And that’s one of the great performances in college basketball I’ve seen.”

It was here that the narratives began to clash quite forcefully. Carlino, the untamed gunner, a detriment to the age-old team dynamic, versus Carlino, the team captain in his final season in Provo, the leader at Marquette.

Ahead of facing the Golden Eagles in Big East play this past Feb. 4, Villanova coach Jay Wright spoke of Carlino’s “assassin’s mindset”. It had been honed from the experience of playing in so many big games. As the Wildcats prepped for the game, the scout team player tasked with portraying Carlino could take any shot he wanted.

In that game, we saw the side that always got passed over. The Carlino who’d do anything to help his team win. A shade under two minutes into the second half against Villanova, Carlino came from the weak side on a defensive possession to try and block Wildcats guard Ryan Arcidiacano’s shot. Arcidiacano flexed, Carlino was upended, and he fell on his head with a crunching thud.

By 16:05, Carlino had come back into the game, even though it was later revealed he’d suffered a concussion, which would force him to miss the next four games.

“He is a gamer, that kid,” said Bill Raftery, who was covering the game for Fox Sports One.

It was something that Wojciechowski, who’d coached so many great guards as an assistant at Duke, alluded to as well. “That was one of the biggest moments in my career,” Wojciechowski told the official basketball website. “He’s a guy I know can match up with any guard in the country. I have complete confidence in him. He’s been an amazing team guy for us.”

A team guy. Wojciechowski isn’t one to mince words, or play the cagey game. He’d seen the sides of Carlino so many casual fans hadn’t taken time to uncover.

For Carlino, Marquette was home. When he’d come to BYU, after a tumultuous few weeks at UCLA, he said it had felt like being blindfolded, spun around a few times, and tottering into a place. Marquette was the first time he’d been able to say, with confidence, that he’d found the perfect fit.

He’ll be an indelible part of Wojciechowski legacy and memory of this place. After the first-year head coach recorded his first win, Marquette’s official site recorded the scene in the home locker room. Moments before Wojciechowski walked through the door, Carlino looked at his teammates and said, with a wry smile, “Let’s jump him.” When Wojo came in, every player piled on in celebration.

Wojciechowski’s take on the scene? “I’ll always remember that locker room.”

In large part because of Carlino.

Follow Alley Whoops on Twitter: @alleywhoops

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