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Matthew Hurt won't let adversity stop him from pursuing excellence

Duke basketball isn't having the year it expected, but Rochester's Matthew Hurt is doing whatever it takes to salvage the Blue Devils' season, including having transformed himself into a potential ACC Player of the Year.

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Matthew Hurt elevates over Illinois big men Kofi Cockburn (#21) and Giorgi Bezhanishvili (#15). The former John Marshall star is leading Duke in scoring at 18.8 points per game. (Photo courtesy Duke Athletics)

The smile, the confidence, the swagger.

On the outside, Matthew Hurt looks like he has it all. Nothing seems to faze the Duke sophomore.

He’s been on the inside track for stardom for years. Hurt’s first Division I offer came when he was in eighth grade, and the John Marshall star transformed into one of the most prolific scorers (3,819 career points) in Minnesota high school basketball history.

Wherever Hurt went, good things seemed to happen. Whatever he touched often turned to gold –– literally. He earned a gold medal for Team USA at the FIBA Americas U18 championship in 2018.

He became the first Rochester player to ever win Minnesota’s coveted Mr. Basketball Award. And to cap it all off, he picked Mike Krzyzewski's Duke Blue Devils over Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas.

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Hurt Announcement John Marshall senior Matthew Hurt blows out birthday cake candles Friday at JM after announcing his decision to play for Duke next year.

Hurt went to Duke with high aspirations. He was supposed to team up with big man Vernon Carey and fellow Minnesota native Tre Jones and lead Duke towards a national championship. Then, the next step was to leave for the NBA and follow the path that Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett had set just one year prior.

But sometimes, plans change.

As a freshman, for the first time in a long time, Hurt struggled. He lost his spot in the starting lineup because of defensive miscues, and he played less than 10 minutes per game in four of Duke’s games in the last four weeks of the season. Maybe it was the lack of consistent playing time, but when Hurt got on the floor, his sweet stroke had evaporated. He went just 1-for-8 from 3-point range in the final four games of the season — a far cry from the guy who was shooting over 43 percent from downtown through the first 19 games of his collegiate career.

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Hurt went from potential one-and-done to questioning his future. Rumors swirled about a potential transfer when Hurt deleted all mention of Duke from his Twitter account.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Hurt subscribed to that. He announced in April that he was returning to Duke for his sophomore season, and was determined to come back a much-improved player. He wanted to do whatever he could to eliminate the issues that plagued him throughout his freshman season. He started packing on lean muscle to his frame. He was determined that the physicality of the ACC wasn’t going to knock him off his spot anymore. He changed his mindset when it came to rebounding and defense. Hurt was done being pounded by physical defenders. He was done picking up unnecessary fouls because he was out of position and forced to gamble. And the jumper? He went to work making that better.

"During quarantine, I was blessed to be able to get into a gym and I worked on a lot of things," Hurt said. "The first day I tried to do the fadeaway, it started feeling really comfortable. I did that every day. A bunch of touch shots and fadeaways every single day. I've kept that going through the season, too."

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Duke hasn't had the year it expected, but Hurt isn't the problem. Instead, he's been a problem for every other team in the country. He's the first one on the scouting report for opposing coaches. Illinois coach Brad Underwood compared Hurt to Iowa's All-American big man Luka Garza. His fadeaway is all but unguardable right now. Hurt is leading Duke in scoring (18.8 points per game), rebounding (7.5) and 3-point shooting (42 percent). He’s second in the ACC in scoring and firmly in the mix for ACC Player of the Year.

Hurt has nearly doubled his scoring and rebounding averages from a year ago. He’s a completely different man with a completely different mindset.

“The mindset is to be more aggressive and be tougher,” Hurt said. “Especially with rebounding, it’s a mentality. Go up with two hands and get all the rebounds that I can. Just having the right mindset going into every game and trying to get a body on someone.”

Foul trouble once again plagued Hurt early in the season, but in five of the last six games, Hurt hasn’t committed more than three fouls. There’s a reason behind that. Outside of practices, Hurt has taken it upon himself to go get more work in the film room.

"Just figuring out how the teams want to attack me, take me into the post and try to get fouls on me,” Hurt said. “I just want to learn the game and the positioning and more importantly, the angles.”

Hurt is transforming into a bona fide superstar. He’s evolving into the player that Krzyzewski so desperately wanted.

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“You have to come to Duke,” Krzyzewski told Hurt during the recruiting process. “I have to be the one to coach you.”

Coach K pleaded for Hurt to become more consistent on the defensive end. He’s done just that. And on the offensive end, Hurt has been a nightmare for opposing teams. He’s scored in double figures in every game this season. He's made at least one 3-pointer in 11 of 13 games and his 123.3 offensive rating on KenPom is one of the elite marks in the country.

"Matt ... he’s close to having a huge game," Krzyzewski said after Duke beat Notre Dame 75-65 on Dec. 16. “But even him touching the ball forces the other team to help and that opens it up for other guys."

Hurt made Krzyzewski look like a genius when he dropped a career-high 26 points on Wake Forest just two games later. He drained 4-of-7 3-pointers.

"I like the fact that it’s more of a workman-like performance for him," Krzyzewski said after the 79-68 win. "Matt is playing at a good pace. People are going to come at him and they’re going to defend him, so when he touches the ball, our guys get more room."

In a way, Duke’s 2020-21 campaign mirrors Hurt’s career. The expectations at the start were sky-high. The Blue Devils were ranked ninth in the country in the Associated Press’ Preseason Top 25. The coaches were even higher on Duke, ranking them eighth. Then adversity struck. Michigan State clawed out of a 10-point hole to beat Duke 75-69. Illinois ran Duke out of Cameron Indoor on Dec. 8 with an 83-68 drubbing in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Three straight losses to Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville in late January dropped the Blue Devils’ record to 5-5 and they tumbled out of the top 25 for the first time in nearly five years. After Monday's two-point loss to a depleted Miami team, the Blue Devils are likely on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament.

Hurt is doing everything he can to keep Duke united and centered. He’s not afraid to speak up in team meetings, and his work ethic this season has been a huge point of emphasis from the Duke coaching staff. It’s Hurt’s way of leading by example.

“For us, we’ve had a lot of team meetings and keep it between us,” Hurt said. “There’s going to be a lot of outside noise and a lot of people on social media saying that we’re not good. But we’re trying to block that out and just do what the coaches say and just keep working every day, extra shots, extra work. It’s a long season. We haven’t gotten off to the start that we wanted, but we just want to keep working.”

The noise on social media was loud when Hurt didn’t live up to expectations last year. Those same fans who would bash him on Twitter a year ago, love him now that he’s one of the best players in the country. The ups and downs of last season and that he is just a sophomore have not deterred him from being a leader on and off the floor for Duke. He raves about the young freshmen that Duke has. Hurt’s been a guide for them because less than 365 days ago, he was enduring some of those freshman nightmares. Hurt preaches togetherness and toughness, how to have the right mindset heading into every single game and to be physical from the tip. Duke got punched in the mouth early in the season, just like Hurt got punched in the mouth early in his career.

They’re punching back now. They're doing it behind their leader from Rochester, the man who’s set the example with his work ethic and his ability to shut out the outside noise from the Cameron Crazies.

Tweets after games? Nope. He'll just get on Twitter to talk about how proud he is of his little sister, Katie, who is starring in the same John Marshall gym that Matthew used to blaze the nets and who'll head to Lehigh University to play basketball in two years.

RELATED: A hat trick for the Hurts; Katie also going D1

A barrage of Instagram pictures? Not his style. Hurt hasn't posted on Instagram since October. He's locked in on doing whatever he can to bring Duke back to the pinnacle of college basketball.

Hurt is a new man and the face of Duke basketball because instead of caving to the pressure, he stood tall and invested in himself.

“I think we’re getting better,” Hurt said. “I don’t think we’re there yet. We have to take it day by day. I try to get one percent better every day. If we do that every day, we’ll be where we want to be.”

Email: itrotter@postbulletin.com
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