- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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Yeah, that's me on the right. The other guy with the "Render-unto-Caesar" sandals is my best friend from college, Kevin Lawrence, circa 1979, in the roach-infested, gold shag-carpeted, cinderblock-wall dump we called an apartment just off the University of Tennessee campus.
Kev got degrees in microbiology, as well as chemical engineering, and then married a knockout Delta Gamma named Jill. I introduced them, was in their wedding, and then occasionally crashed at their place in St. Louis, or Luling, La., Columbia, Tenn., or wherever else Monsanto transferred Kev.
They had three lovely children. Nick was the oldest. Rachel the youngest. And in the middle was Matthew Ryan.
You'll see him in Missouri's lineup when it plays favored Memphis in the Sweet 16 Thursday evening at the West Regional in Glendale, Ariz. How he got to this point -- in a major Division I program, in an NCAA tournament box score, in the MU record book -- I have no idea.
I mean, nobody buys "NCAA Basketball 09: March Madness Edition" to be Matt Lawrence.
The last time we played hoops was on the driveway of their house in suburban St. Louis. If I had stuffed Matt any more during the game his nickname would have been "Butterball." I'm not sure he scored more than a point or two. When he left the concrete court he was near tears.
He was also 12, though I like to tell people he was 13. Sounds better that way.
Now, he's 6-7 and one of two remaining players from his 2005 freshman class at Missouri. Or, more accurately, one of the survivors who has led the Tigers back from probation to the Sweet 16.
"It's been a miracle," says Kev, who traveled with Jill to Boise, Idaho, for the opening rounds and will be at University of Phoenix Stadium for the West Regional. "It's really been a miracle."
Not heart-lung machine miracle, but a basketball miracle.
First of all, Kev wasn't exactly Division I material himself. More like a 6-7, extension cord-thin starting center for our Morrill Hall seventh-floor team or for our indie team. He was fine against the frat rats, but that's it.
But Matt's grandfather has some hoops DNA. Gene Flowers played on two Big Ten championship teams at Indiana (he was captain of the 1959 IU team) and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.
And they made a movie about his high school team. Well, not exactly his team, but about the other team in the 1954 Indiana state championship.
The movie was "Hoosiers," and tiny Milan High (162 enrollment, 73 boys) was the star. In real life, Flowers' Muncie Central team was the one that got beat by Bobby Plump's last-second shot in the championship at then-Butler Fieldhouse.
Matt's career doesn't get a movie, but it gets bonus frames. It gets its first NCAA tournament, a Big 12 Conference tournament championship, a co-sixth man award from Big 12 coaches, a place in the school's and the league's record books for 3-pointers. Most of all, it gets what almost no one, including Lawrence, thought possible: four years at Mizzou and the most career starts of anybody on the roster.
All this from a guy who received exactly zero scholarship offers from major programs and who, if you took a vote, wasn't considered good enough to play at Missouri.
"I'd say I bet that's what everyone was thinking," says Lawrence.
He shouldn't be here, but he is. Maybe that's why, when Missouri won the Big 12 tournament, Lawrence clutched the conference trophy from the court to the locker room, from the locker room to the team hotel, from the hotel to the charter plane, from the plane to the Mizzou Arena. It's why MU fans have a soft spot for Lawrence, soft enough that his best friend held up a cell phone in a St. Louis bar after the Tigers' second-round NCAA tourney win against Marquette, told the crowd he was calling Lawrence, and then led everyone in a Mizzou voice message serenade.
Four years ago Lawrence was an afterthought recruit. Then-Missouri head coach Quin Snyder liked him, but not enough to save a scholarship for him as a freshman. Had he had an offer from a Division I major, just about any Division I major, Lawrence might have taken it. But no one would touch him. A second-tier Big Ten program told him not to even bother to visit, that he couldn't play at that "level."
"A low point," says Kev. "That was bad. But a lot of people said he couldn't play at that level."
It was only after another Mizzou recruit was ruled academically ineligible just before classes began that Lawrence got a mercy full ride.
"I just knew growing up in Missouri, I wanted to play for Missouri," says Lawrence.
That's nice, except that what worked for Lawrence at Lafayette (Mo.) High, didn't work at Mizzou. He got beat off the dribble. He got muscled. He wasn't as fast, as quick, as anything.
Lawrence called home and said, "Man, I really don't belong here."
But by the end of the conversation he had figured it out. He told Kev, "If I'm going to survive here, I'm going to have to learn how to shoot the 3."
That was 238 treys ago, which ranks second in school history and ninth in Big 12 history.
But before the happy ending, there was an NCAA investigation and Snyder's resignation/firing in the middle of the Lawrence's first year. There was the hiring of Mike Anderson and the arrival of Anderson's "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" motto. When you think of Lawrence, you don't think fastest anything.
"Oh, definitely," says Lawrence, "especially when you have people in the community, people back home saying, 'You don't fit his style at all. He likes athletic guys.'"
I was one of those people. I e-mailed Kev and said that if the Tigers hired Anderson, Matt might want to think about rotating to another program. You know, for his own good.
But Matt wasn't going anywhere. He told his old man, "I don't want to transfer. That's what people do who can't play."
That was 84 starts ago.
Lawrence never had a signing day. He started zero games on a Snyder team that finished 12-16 under the weight of an NCAA inquiry. He started as a sophomore for a new coach, but that didn't stop opposing players and fans from mocking him. (Some of it was his own fault. His profile in the MU media guide says his favorite pregame ritual is eating a Snickers and listening to techno music. "I've been trying to get that taken out of the media guide every year," he says.) And the Tigers were an NCAA tournament no-show.
Last season Mizzou was undone by player unrest, bar fights and mass suspensions. Lawrence, who stayed above the mess, started against Nebraska when the Tigers' roster was reduced to just six scholarship players. As usual, Mizzou missed the NCAAs.
This season Anderson asked him to come off the bench during much of the Big 12 schedule. Lawrence didn't say a peep and the Tigers won a school-record 30 games.
Then again, Lawrence has never been much of a whiner. Wouldn't be right. After all, his sister, Rachel, never complains. She was diagnosed with a significant form of autism at an early age.
"A lot of times ... if I've got a test, a paper, a game -- all this stuff on my plate -- and I think it's overwhelming, there's my sister and she doesn't have the same things," says Lawrence. "She can't go to college and get a degree. She can't play a sport. She can't find joy in these same things. My sister has it a lot worse."
Says Kev: "She loves her brother. She's happy to see him. But she doesn't understand basketball. She doesn't like big crowds, loud noises. Those things upset her. ... The fact that his sister has to deal with the things she does makes Matt appreciate the skills he has. I think that's one of the reasons he doesn't get too mad about situations. I think [Rachel] has something to do with that. What she's got is a big deal. Basketball isn't a big deal."
It was a big deal on March 4 -- Senior Night. Lawrence received a framed jersey and an ovation to die for. Kev was emotional. Jill cried. And when Jill cries, Matt chokes up. He also got geeked up for his final home game. His first shot against No. 5-ranked Oklahoma -- a jumper from 5 feet -- sailed 3 feet over the rim.
But the Tigers beat OU. And they won the Big 12 tourney. And they're 2-0 in the NCAAs after beating Cornell and Marquette. Player unrest? Not anymore. The Tigers sang Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" on the plane back from Boise.
"A lot of people can't believe the difference from when I came in at Missouri and where we are now," says Matt.
Nothing against Memphis, which has won 27 consecutive games, but I'll be rooting for Mizzou. I'll be rooting for Matt and more Madness bonus frames.
After that day on the driveway, it's the least I can do.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's Podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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