IOWA CITY - Cameras, microphones and tape recorders surrounded Matt Gatens as he fielded question after question. He handled them like a veteran, while his fellow freshmen stood, by comparison, in obscurity beneath a backboard at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Anthony who? Andrew who? Aaron who? ... Not so for Gatens, who verbally committed crosstown to the University of Iowa as a freshman at City High and kept his word even after Steve Alford defected to New Mexico in 2007.
He's the Hawkeyes' most versatile freshman, last season's Mr. Basketball and an Iowa City lifer whose entire immediate family attended the U of I. He could be spotted sitting behind the Hawkeye bench during home games in past seasons.
T-R PHOTO BY TOM RENAUD
Iowa freshman guard Matt Gatens answers questions during the Hawkeyes’ annual media day Monday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Gatens, last year’s Mr. Basketball, committed to the program as a freshman at Iowa City High.
In other words, his is a familiar face.
"Living in Iowa City my whole life, I couldn't see myself going anywhere else," Gatens, the only Iowan on scholarship, said Monday during the team's media day. "I was around last year and pretty much knew all of the older guys, but there are a lot of fresh faces."
And, as the blue-chipper of Iowa's 2008-09 recruiting crop - ESPN, Athlon Sports and The Sporting News all ranked him in the top 100 of his class - the sculpted 6-foot-5, 215-pound off-guard could play a key role on a team that lost the most games in school history and produced a Carver-Hawkeye-low attendance mark last year during head coach Todd Lickliter's debut.
A team whose 13-man roster includes eight underclassmen, seven newcomers and five freshmen.
"Whatever the coaches want me to do - whether it's coming off the bench or starting - it doesn't really matter to me," said Gatens, whose skill level, according to Lickliter, is sometimes forgotten amid all the talk of his hard-nosed, selfless approach.
Gatens isn't just Mr. Basketball - he's Mr. Heart, sophomore point guard Jeff Peterson said.
To which Lickliter offered a slight addendum.
"He's got a big heart, but he's always got a big Hawkeye heart," said Lickliter, whose team opens the season Nov. 14 at home against Charleston Southern. "He's a guy who loves the Hawkeyes."
Gatens was a career 83 percent free-throw shooter and 40 percent 3-point marksman for City High who led the Little Hawks to last year's Class 4A state title while averaging 22.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and five assists. His four-year season scoring average never dipped below 18 points.
That's made him stand out among the team's other freshmen - Anthony Tucker, Andrew Brommer, Aaron Fuller and Lickliter's son, walk-on John Lickliter - even before the first official practice.
But Gatens said he doesn't feel any added pressure.
"It's a dream come true to play in your own hometown for college," said Gatens, a pre-Business major. "Not very many kids can come up here and do it."
Gatens' father, Mike, lettered for the Iowa basketball team from 1974-76, and his mother, Julie, was a Hawkeye cheerleader. His sisters, Nicole and Megan, also competed in athletics at Iowa.
Putting a Hawkeye jersey on is "something I've been thinking about almost since the day I was born," Gatens said.
Still, letters from top-tier programs flooded his mailbox after his verbal commitment. And when Alford left the team, Gatens said he was still sold on Iowa, he just had no idea what direction they'd go with the coaching search.
Any uncertainty he had quickly vanished after a two-hour sit-down with Lickliter.
"Basketball wasn't even mentioned," said Gatens. "We just talked about life, him coming here, his values, and I loved every part of it. I knew this was still the place for me."
Lickliter called Gatens a gift.
"If I were anywhere I would have recruited Matt Gatens, but knowing that you're here in Iowa City and getting him, that's different altogether," he said. "He's a guy that's always concentrating on his team. He makes his teammates better, he doesn't concern himself with individual glory and consequently he just keeps getting better and better because his focus is absolutely correct."
Gatens said he's never looked at himself as anything more than a team player.
"They might have counted on me (in high school) to score more points," he said, "but it's always been a team effort. Here we concentrate almost totally on defense right now."
Nothing has been given to Gatens just because of his name or his zip code, and he hasn't entered the program with a big-headed approach, said Peterson.
"The biggest thing with Matt is his heart, his love for the game," Peterson said. "He comes and he works hard every day. ... We're definitely pushing him; the thing that matters most is him pushing himself."
No one's picking Iowa - 13-19 a year ago - to win much of anything this go-round.
By the time Gatens is through, Lickliter wants that to change. The Hawkeyes want their first regular season Big Ten title since 1979. They want to get to the Dance, and go beyond the first two rounds.
Lickliter said he couldn't recall anyone in his family ending a season with a win until John Lickliter, a point guard, helped Gatens' Little Hawks to last year's 4A title.
"I'm happy and pleased for John, but now I've asked him, could he and Matt Gatens and Anthony Tucker (a 6-4 shooting guard from Minnetonka, Minn.), who have done it, help us do it," the coach said.
"That's always your dream. You want to finish, go out on a win."