ROCHESTER, Minn. — Farmland and open fields stretch beyond the horizon along Highway 14 before the city of Rochester emerges, one of few metropolitan areas in America’s heartland.
Billboards along the way thank Minnesota’s farmers and tout the region’s vast production of corn and soybeans. There’s pride in hard work here, but perhaps even more, there’s pride in the homegrown and authentic.
Despite becoming one of the nation’s top basketball recruits and a potential one-season player at Duke, Matthew Hurt has stayed true to his home in Rochester as the same guy that grew up loving the Minnesota Twins and spending every free moment with friends and family.
“Staying in Rochester meant a lot to me and my family,” he said. “Just family and friends, really. I’m going to leave them eventually, but leaving them a year early wouldn’t be too nice. I’ve been raised here, so just trying to give back and stay loyal to the city.”
Hurt, who graduates from John Marshall High School on Saturday and will move to Durham on Wednesday to get a head start on preparations for his freshman season at Duke, is the rare basketball star who chose to stick with his public high school rather than leaving for one of the nation’s top programs for the chance to play a national schedule against elite competition.
Already a local legend, Hurt began playing varsity basketball as a seventh-grader, received a scholarship offer from Iowa State in eighth grade, and finished his career as Minnesota’s all-time leading scorers among schools above Class 1-A with 3,819 points, including averaging 36.8 points as a senior.
Naturally, his recruitment has been among the biggest stories in the city of just more than 100,000 for the past two seasons, with Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams making several appearances in their pursuit of the 6-9, 215-pound wing.
Whether it was in line at the grocery store or going to church, Marshall coach Jim Daly got used to answering the same question: “Hey Coach, where’s the big guy going?”
Hurt finally answered that question on April 19 when he announced he’d play for the Blue Devils, choosing Duke over North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky.
After being named Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball and playing in both the Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American games, he’s back to just being Matthew Hurt again — a giant in Daly’s fourth-grade classroom, standing in the center of a group of screaming children as they wrap up an intense foosball match just before school is dismissed for the day.
Hurt hasn’t forgotten how he admired Twins stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau when baseball was his focus.
“It’s always fun, talking to little kids,” he said. “At one time, I was their age and looking up to people coming into our classrooms, so I thought that was pretty cool.”
It was around the time of that first offer that Hurt decided to focus his attention on basketball, realizing just how far hoops could take him. Rather than relying on his height to dominate smaller defenders in the lane, Hurt worked to develop his perimeter skills and made himself one of the elite shooters in his class as a matchup nightmare who is more comfortable creating his own shot than working in the post.
Given Duke’s history of developing the “stretch-four” position with players such as Mike Dunleavy Jr., Brandon Ingram and Ryan Kelly, it would have appeared the Blue Devils had the right formula to sell Hurt on his fit.
Hurt said that isn’t at all what happened throughout the recruitment, which was led by assistant Jon Scheyer.
“They talked about positionless basketball,” he said. “They didn’t really talk about, ‘You’re going to be this guy.’ They said just come and be me; be Matthew Hurt.”
Sure, it was nice for Hurt to hear that, but he said it was also proven in a few situations last season, taking note of Krzyzewski’s defense of RJ Barrett after the Maui Invitational and once, right in front of him during his official visit for Duke’s 72-70 victory over Virginia on Jan. 19.
Barrett got off to a slow start in that game, missing seven of his first nine attempts before rebounding to finish 11-for-19 with 30 points.
“Coach K was like, ‘Keep shooting; I believe in you, have confidence,’” Hurt said. “I just thought that was pretty cool because some coaches, if you make a mistake, they take you out. He lets his players play through mistakes with a lot of freedom, so I thought that was pretty big for me.”
Also big was Duke point guard Tre Jones, another Minnesota native, who stepped in to help close Hurt’s recruitment after he decided to return for his sophomore season. The conversation started around the Final Four and Jones — like his defense — never let up until the Blue Devils had their prized wing on board.
“Just his vision, his passing and how he plays defense,” Hurt said. “I think he’s the best point guard, defensively last year and this year he will be, too. Playing with a point guard like that will benefit me.”
The chance to play with one of the nation’s top returning distributors means Matthew Hurt can be Matthew Hurt — something that Daly saw, well, daily for the past two years as his coach.
Opponents threw one defense after another at him, trying double-teams, triple-teams and even occasionally getting physical.
“I’ve never been around a kid that keeps his composure as well as he does," Daly said. "Referees are going to miss calls. He kept his composure. As an adult, I wouldn’t have done it as well as he did, just kept playing and produced at a high level, too. Guys couldn’t get him off his game.”
Duke and Durham certainly don’t have the miles of freedom offered by Minnesota’s farmland, but on the court, he sees that same opportunity to be the same Matthew Hurt that never got off his game back home and the freedom to become the player he thinks he can become.
“I think he really was impressed by, if you come to Duke, ‘You’ll have a lot of freedom to be Matthew and play your game,’” Daly said. “He wants to be special and Coach K is going to push him, and I know Matthew is going to embrace that. He really wants to be a special player.”