Three seasons ago, Eisenhower center Matt Pile was a lowly freshman on a senior-dominated team led by two-time All-State selection Trevon Evans. Pile’s job was to quietly rebound and score inside when he had the chance.
On Jan. 14, 2014, Pile emerged as a force, never to be overshadowed again — and all it took was one ferocious dunk.
In a win over Maize South at Eisenhower, Pile took off somewhere inside the free-throw line and slammed the basketball through the hoop. It was one of those attention-snatching moments that sent the student section into a frenzy and gave Pile a confidence he had lacked.
Pile, now a 6-foot-7 junior, has developed into one of the state’s best big men and has helped lead Eisenhower (21-1) into the Class 5A tournament as the No. 1 seed. Eisenhower will play KC Washington (13-9) on Wednesday at 3 p.m. at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka.
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“After he dunked on them, I was just in shock,” Evans said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s how you play big. We need you to play like that all the time.’ ”
It was the kind of play that impressed Eisenhower coaches, too.
“He came out, in our first game against Salina South (in 2013), and he had nine points, eight rebounds,” Eisenhower coach Steve Blue said. “Even then, his confidence wasn’t high. Then he catches the ball against Maize South and just drops the dunk.
“For a freshman to do that in a big game against one of the better teams in our league, well, you could see it in his face that he had gotten some confidence. And his teammates accepted him as someone who could definitely play.”
Oh, can Pile play.
He is averaging 19.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 4.1 blocks. Sam Houston State offered Pile a scholarship, and he has taken visits to Northern Colorado and Colorado.
He’s just a force for us inside. Physically he’s stronger than just about anyone we face inside.
Eisenhower coach Steve Blue
It has taken work to reach this point. Pile is motivated by the desire to not repeat last season’s 10-12 record and by becoming college-ready. So when he’s in the gym, he’s not just shooting around. He lifts weights first, then runs through drills designed to give him better quickness, footwork and overall skills. His plan this offseason is to increase his shooting range and his ballhandling skills as preparation for college.
As a seventh grader, he chose to give up football and baseball to focus on basketball.
“I had talent in all three, but basketball is the one I have the most fun with, and I had a gift — not a lot of guys around here are my size,” Pile said.
Actually, there are few true centers.
“You get so many guys who are shooting the three and want to work off the bounce,” Blue said. “There’s not that true big guy, the guy who posts up and dominates inside the lane.… He’s an old school guy. He shoots 72 percent from the field. He’s the guy who will rebound and make the long outlet pass.”
Eisenhower has won 19 straight games since it lost 59-41 to Andover Central on Dec. 15. Eisenhower beat Andover Central in triple overtime on Feb. 9.
Pile’s versatility causes opponents headaches, which is why he is double- and triple-teamed. He takes a beating, and while he doesn’t have the obvious massive biceps of teammate Sonny Brown, at 225 pounds, Pile can handle physical play.
He so alters the game defensively that a Maize South player, in Friday’s sub-state title game, shot faked four times before being called for a travel. Why? Well, Pile was standing there, patiently waiting to swat the shot.
“He’s just so big, and people get all scared,” Eisenhower sophomore Dylan Vincent said.
Pile’s defensive prowess allows Eisenhower’s guards to take more chances.
“We always know we have help,” Eisenhower senior Noah Strunk said. “He’s a good shot blocker. If we get beat, we always know we have help.”
19.9, 15.2, 4.1Pile’s points, rebounds, blocks per game
Pile has finesse, as well, and he showcases in his passing game. As the defenders surround him, he’s able to see the gaps and find his favorite targets: Eisenhower’s trio of three-point shooters, Jack Taliaferro, Vincent and Brown.
In the sub-state title game, as the defense collapsed on Pile, he stood with his back to the basket and then threw a bounce pass to Tanner King on the baseline for the easy score.
“Matt’s not ever concerned about his own stats,” Blue said. “He’s worried about what’s best for the team. His passing has been incredible. That’s just Matt understanding the game and doing what’s best for the team.”
But Blue also handed out accolades to Taliaferro, Brown and Strunk, who all start.
“We have seniors who understand their roles and know how good Matt is,” Blue said. “… Everyone on our team understands how good he is and how important he is to the team.”