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New home, old issues

Transfer Humphrey still looking for comfort zone at BC

There’s still some rust on the game of Boston College’s Matt Humphrey; here he is rejected by UMass’ Cady Lalanne. There’s still some rust on the game of Boston College’s Matt Humphrey; here he is rejected by UMass’ Cady Lalanne. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 28, 2011
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From the beginning, it was never a settled situation.

Matt Humphrey went to Oregon because the basketball coach, Ernie Kent, had a connection with him. They were both Illinois guys, Humphrey from the South Side of Chicago, Kent from Rockford.

Kent loved the way Humphrey’s parents raised him. In fact, when Humphrey came to Eugene in 2008, people would hear him speak at booster events and swear he was Kent’s son.

“He’s somebody that I’ll always be connected with at the hip in some way,’’ Kent said.

As a 6-foot-5-inch guard, Humphrey had an energy on the floor, a drive to be great, and an addiction to taking big shots, and Kent thought he could bring all of that to a program that had gone to the Elite Eight in 2002 and 2007.

It just never panned out.

When Humphrey got to Oregon, Kent was on the hot seat. The program was slipping into mediocrity, and Kent was dealing with personal issues.

There were rumblings and rumors, and the news finally came at the 2010 Pac-10 tournament. Oregon, which had gone 16-16 and finished next to last in the regular season, lost to Washington State in the tournament quarterfinals, and then Kent told his players he no longer would be their coach.

“It’s extremely difficult,’’ Kent said. “To have to walk away from a program without seeing an individual grow and mature and get to where you think they’re capable of getting is extremely hard.

“When that day came, it felt like you were leaving your own kids. You literally felt like you had walked out on your own family and walked out on your own kids.’’

Humphrey was just as shaken.

“I didn’t know what to do, honestly,’’ Humphrey said. “It was just a lot of intangible things that I couldn’t necessarily control. At the same time, I still had to protect myself and make sure I was still in a good situation.’’

He landed at Boston College, where he still is trying to find some sense of stability. After sitting out last season, he has returned to the floor for the first time since that Pac-10 tournament loss. Under coach Steve Donahue, Humphrey is trying to rediscover the fearless shooting nature that led Kent to believe he could lead Oregon to another NCAA Tournament. But now, Humphrey is a veteran presence on a team loaded with freshmen.

He is fresh and weathered at the same time, having lived a few basketball lifetimes despite playing just 50 college games entering this season.

“I just want to figure it out with these guys,’’ Humphrey said. “Whatever way it is, I want to figure it out.’’

Spotted by Donahue

Humphrey first met Donahue at a USA Basketball U-18 practice. Donahue was one of the floor coaches. Humphrey was an 18-year-old kid with two cellphones.

Donahue walked up to him and said, “Man, what do you have two phones for?’’

Humphrey just told him, “I do a lot.’’

“OK,’’ Donahue said. “Busy man.’’

Donahue left after a few days and didn’t keep an eye on Humphrey. But when he took the BC job in 2010, he sifted through a list of transfers and saw Humphrey’s name.

“I probably didn’t know what he did at Oregon at all, but I just looked it up and thought it was a good fit,’’ Donahue said.

Humphrey could shoot the ball, and Donahue felt he was strong enough and athletic enough to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Donahue imagined having him on the floor with Reggie Jackson and Dallas Elmore. But Elmore left the program last April and Jackson jumped to the NBA last summer.

Humphrey was looking for a program that really wanted him.

“It’s easy for a school to take a freshman and start with him,’’ said Humphrey. “A transfer, they’re supplying you with three years [of school] for two [of basketball]. So you may have to find a school that wants you bad enough to pay for that year of school while you’re sitting out that year.’’

But Humphrey was the type of player Donahue thought could help a young team.

“If he wasn’t as skilled, I wouldn’t have recruited him,’’ said the coach. “I thought he fit what we do, just from my experience there those four days.’’

Weight of uncertainty

After Kent was fired, there was a 45-day span in which Oregon didn’t have a coach. The team still worked out. But there were a million questions.

The players asked the assistants who were still there if they were leaving. The assistants tried to tell players whether to stay or leave.

“You’ve kind of just got to rely on yourself,’’ Humphrey said.

On Day 42, Humphrey decided to ask for his release and permission to talk to other schools. The uncertainty, he said, left him no choice. In a two-week period, he got calls from Baylor, Michigan, Texas-El Paso, and TCU, among others.

When BC made its coaching change, the transition out of the Al Skinner era was rapid. Donahue was actually at the team’s postseason banquet. Players got to know him.

“That just lets you know how it was supposed to go and how it didn’t go at Oregon,’’ Humphrey said.

Transferring was difficult. He wasn’t settled at Oregon, but he liked it there.

“Just the basketball part of it never went the way I envisioned it going,’’ he said.

He had played 31 games as a freshman, but some nights he’d see a lot of minutes, and on others, they’d be hard to come by. He tore a meniscus his sophomore year and played just 19 games.

The freshman class that Humphrey came in with never jelled.

“A lot of us found ourselves just wandering all the time,’’ he said. “Just coming into practice some days not knowing whether you were going to play or not, regardless of whether it was your fault or not.

“It wasn’t just me, it was everybody. Just dealing with all those things at once made it a tough thing to deal with altogether.’’

A difficult year

Sitting out the required year as a transfer was its own challenge. Humphrey’s mind drifted away from playing games. He practiced, but he couldn’t completely feel a part of the team.

“It’s kind of a lonely type of year, and it’s hard,’’ Donahue said.

One minute, he was with the team for a game-day breakfast. But when the others left to get ready for the game, Humphrey went to the weight room. He didn’t travel with the team.

“It’s almost like when you’re not playing, you really check out,’’ he said. “Then when you try to check back in, that’s the hard part. I find myself trying to get back into the swing of things still.’’

He is still shaking off cobwebs. In 12 games (all of which he has started), Humphrey is averaging 10.2 points, but he is shooting only 29.8 percent from the floor, 28.4 percent on 3-pointers.

“I think it’s very hard to sit out and then come back again and play,’’ Donahue said. “Then throw in the fact that they’re all new. Matt’s the only non-freshman in the rotation right now, and he’s new to what we’re doing in the sense that he hasn’t played in a while.

“So now his whole experience is new and he’s got a bunch of guys that are new, so I think it’s been hard to kind of figure out where he fits.’’

Every so often, Humphrey and Kent will talk on the phone.

“All of that is difficult, but the adversity of all that is going to force him to grow,’’ said Kent.

“I just see it as a transition period,’’ said Humphrey’s father, Darryl. “Everything is in stages and he’ll get through it. He’ll get some success under him and he’ll get through it.

“Stability is something that he’s never had. I just know that he’s always come from situations that were difficult and he’s always come out on top.’’

Humphrey is hoping he can find at BC what he has been looking for since he left Oregon.

“Even then, I was searching for it, how I was supposed to be on the court,’’ he said. “And I find myself in the same predicament, just in a different pair of shoes. I’ve just got to step up to the plate and show people.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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