Matt Pile grew up watching Wichita State men’s basketball games in the stands. On Tuesday, the Wichita native lived out a dream playing against the Shockers at Koch Arena as the starting center for Nebraska Omaha.
Pile, a 6-foot-8 junior, finished with six points and a game-high 15 rebounds in a 68-54 loss to Wichita State in front of around 50 friends and family. For many, it was the first time seeing Pile play in person since his all-state career in high school for Goddard Eisenhower.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Pile said. “I’ve always wanted to play here. I’ve come to so many games before. It’s an incredible atmosphere and a great experience.”
WSU coach Gregg Marshall was effusive in his praise of Pile in the lead-up to the season-opening game, even going as far to say that it was “possible we made a mistake” when WSU passed on offering Pile a scholarship three years ago in recruiting. Instead, WSU signed 7-foot center Asbjorn Midtgaard as its big man for its 2017 recruiting class.
“I saw Matt Pile and when I saw him, I liked him,” Marshall said. “To be honest, I never got my staff as enthused about recruiting Matt as I was. I’ve watched him now and boy, he’s a really good player.
“He’s someone I really think had the possibility of playing at this level and would have looked good in a Shocker uniform.”
That scenario is one that Connie and Jerry Pile, Matt’s parents, used to imagine about when Matt was a dominant force at Eisenhower. At the time, Pile would have been joining a Wichita State that entered the season as a top-10 team with goals of making another Final Four run.
To stay at home and be a part of that as a hometown player for the Shockers sounded like a dream.
“I’m a proud Wichita State graduate,” Jerry Pile said. “It would be something else if he was playing for my college, but at the same time, things happen for a reason and I really do believe he’s up there in Omaha for a reason.”
Matt Pile says playing for Wichita State is no longer a “what if” game that he plays in his mind. After Tuesday’s game, he said it would have been “awesome” to play for the Shockers, but he believes he made the right decision three years ago in coming to Omaha.
“I could definitely tell on my visit that I was going to love it and I have,” Matt Pile said. “I’m so happy that I choose to go here. Everything is perfect. I love the guys and the coaches. It’s a good system for me. It would have been cool to be close to home, but honestly Omaha has been a perfect fit for me.”
When deciding on his college choice, Pile wanted to find a good program where he could help right away. Pile saw Omaha as a team on the rise in the Summit League and his suspicions proved correct, as the Mavericks won a program-record 22 games last season and played for the Summit League championship for the second time in the past three seasons.
Pile has made the immediate impact he wanted, as last season as a sophomore he averaged 11.2 points and 7.9 rebounds as a starter. This year he will try to lead Omaha, which was picked fourth in the Summit League, to that elusive championship and was chosen preseason second team all-conference.
Seeing Pile do exactly what he set out to do three years ago has been a joy for Steve Blue, who coached Pile at Eisenhower.
“It hasn’t surprised me because I know how hard Matt works,” Blue said. “He’s in the gym or in the weight room or in the classroom. He’s been raised by his family to be a hard worker and he set a great example for everyone when he was with us. The coaching staff at Omaha has done a great job working with him and helping him be a little smoother.
“He was triple-teamed in high school so much, we never really saw his full potential in the paint. He was still one of the most dominant forces in Kansas and I think he’s starting to see that confidence grow and grow in college.”
And Pile not only excels on the basketball court, but also in the classroom. He’s a chemistry major at Omaha and was chosen a third-team Academic All-American last season.
For Pile, there’s no more what if. Now, it’s what’s next?
“We are so proud of Matt for what he’s been able to do on the court and also being a chemistry major,” Connie Pile said. “Do we wish we could get to the games more easily and not drive five hours? Yes. But academically, athletically, the guys he’s gotten to know, his family up there with his teammates and coaches, we couldn’t ask for a better college experience than what Omaha has given him.”