Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
A journey across the Atlantic Ocean brought Matthew Hodge, in a strange way, to a spot that couldn’t have made any more sense.
The St. Rose (N.J.) senior became the first commitment in Villanova’s 2024 class when he announced his decision last weekend, giving Kyle Neptune a big-time piece to build a critical class around. It was a decision that came after a summer which saw high-major after high-major offer the 6-foot-8, 210-pound wing-forward, who showcased a rare variety of size, athleticism, skillset, physicality and basketball IQ.
Belgian forward Matthew Hodge (above) committed to Villanova last week. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
And no, the fact that St. Rose head coach Brian Lynch went to Villanova isn’t why Hodge committed to the Wildcats — but he totally understands why the connection comes up instantly.
“It kind of looks like it, for sure,” he agreed, “and you would think that had something to do with it.”
Maybe, in a roundabout way, it’s not totally unconnected.
After all, it’s because of Lynch that Hodge was even playing in the Garden State to begin with; Lynch and Hodge’s father, Odell Hodge were teammates in Belgium in mid-to-late 2000s, Lynch knowing Matthew since he was born. Lynch lived in Belgium, playing and coaching, all the way up until 2020, when he returned to the United States, taking the St. Rose job in August 2021.
It was around that time that Matthew Hodge made an important choice of his own. He had the ability to turn pro as a teenager, forgoing amateurism to play in the Belgian league, following in his father’s footsteps. Or he could stay an amateur, go to high school and collegiate, retain his amateurism, and pursue the pros later on down the line.
“Finding out while I got older and how much I had a chance to actually go to college, we started really thinking about it,” he said. “(Playing college basketball) actually became a dream, where before we didn’t really know what to do — would I be able to make pro right out of high school, or do I stop playing basketball? And when I got (to the United States) it really turned everything [around].”
Odell Hodge trusted his former teammate and good friend with his kids, Matt and Jayden, two years younger than his older brother, a 6-5 wing with every bit as much potential. The two Hodge boys lived with Lynch and his family, adjusting to life in a new country and a slightly different style of basketball.
Lynch, who’d last seen Hodge as a 14-year-old playing in Belgium before the pandemic, immediately knew that the young man who arrived in the States a couple years later had an even brighter future than he imagined.
“He’d just got so much bigger and stronger and more athletic and I was like ‘holy s***,’” Lynch said. “I had the feeling that if he continued developing from what I had saw, yeah, he’s going to be a Division I player, the question was, how high?”
Odell Hodge was a 6-9 power forward, a standout at Old Dominion and member of the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame, a terror around the basket who only developed his 3-point shot later in his career. His oldest son brings some of that physicality but has a much more well-rounded game, capable of playing the point-forward role and getting his own shot from any level.
Hodge (above) showed off his improved outside shooting this June at the Philly Live events. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“Odell was pure power and when he got his hands on the ball around the basket, he was scoring that,” Lynch said. “And Matt’s not like that, Matt’s a very unselfish, versatile, more guard-ish kind of player than his dad. They would have been perfect playing together.”
Both Lynch and Matthew Hodge said that Lynch’s input on Hodge’s collegiate decision came only on the basketball side; Lynch would advise Hodge on how he would fit into different collegiate programs, how his style might translate. By the time he came up with a final six — Nova, Marquette, Xavier, Penn State, Maryland and Seton Hall — Lynch felt that Hodge had a group where he would be able to flourish at any of them, and let his ward make his mind on his own.
“Yeah, I was really surprised but at the same time I was happy,” Lynch said. “First of all for him to make that choice and get that decision made; and secondly, just when it all sank in that he was going to become a Villanova Wildcat, just knowing his character, the way he plays, I think a lot of it will equate to him really fitting in well there and playing a good role.
“I think he made a great choice for himself and I was obviously ecstatic, once it was all said and done, that he chose that.”
Hodge said the decision didn’t come easily.
He visited Villanova -- which got involved heavily in June, after two outstanding weekends at Philly Live -- first of his finalists, in late July, then took official visits to each of the other five in succession, getting a couple days on each campus, a chance to see how he would vibe with his future teammates, get a feel for what life might be like at each school, under each coach. Hodge said he made a pros and cons list of each school that he visited, took notes on each visit, not feeling like any one school had a lead over the other, approaching each with an open mind.
With the summer over and his senior year approaching, he needed a little space to make up his mind.
“Last weekend I decided it’s time to go dark,” he said. “I had no clue where I wanted to go, and that week all the coaches on my list came to see me, and they all had a great pitch for me, and after every talk it was like ‘this sounds good, (that) sounds good.’
“I went dark and really took the time by myself, not talking to any coaches and that’s when I knew, okay, here’s where I want to go.”
In the end, it was Villanova, giving second-year head coach Kyle Neptune and staff their most significant high school recruit yet. The Wildcats have at least four players in the rotation who are in their final year of college hoops, and could have as many as seven seniors moving on, leaving a massive opportunity for minutes on next year’s roster.
Neptune and his staff are likely to fill the remainder of the spots with a mix of high school and collegiate talent. Hodge won’t be guaranteed any specific role, but he’ll have a chance to earn a significant one.
“I don’t want to demand anything, I just want to have the best opportunity where I can compete and show myself, [where] I’ll be able to compete right away, and I felt like at Villanova it was great,” he said. “Also when I went on the visit how beautiful the campus was, and how good the teammates were when I went to talk to them on my visit. Everything kind of played out (well) with the pitch they have for me, too.”
The team goals for St. Rose this year are obvious: a New Jersey state championship, the Purple Roses losing to Roselle in the Non-Public ‘B’ championship a year ago at the end of a 24-5 season.
For Hodge, it’s about using the next 12 months to get himself ready for the collegiate landscape, where his physicality and size won’t be nearly as much of an advantage as they are at the prep level. Skill, conditioning and effort will be the difference-makers .
“I want to improve my ball-handling a little bit more, because I feel like now on the high-school level I’m pretty confident dribbling and bringing up the ball, but it has to improve and be on an elite level if I want to do the same things on the college level and for sure on the Big East level,” he said. “So for sure that and get a little bit more physical, so I’m ready right away.”