You are a pretty good athlete when the lead singer of a country group recognizes your talent.
Granted, that singer was Mark Miller, lead singer for Sawyer Brown who also just happened to play basketball at Central Florida and was coaching AAU ball.
But for JeQuan Lewis, who grew up in Dickson, Tenn., a town of about 15,000 just west of Nashville, country singers come with the territory.
“I am not sure if a lot of people know where it is. It is so overlooked,” says Lewis, who is generously listed at 6-1. “Not so many people make it out.”
But Lewis did, thanks to Miller, who took the small point guard under his wings when Lewis was in sixth grade.
Lewis was a basketball and football star at Dickson County High School and was so adept at quarterback that Marshall University recruited him to play both sports in college.
But prior to his senior year of high school Lewis was spotted on the AAU hoop trail by Will Wade, at the time an assistant coach under Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Wade, who is also from Tennessee, saw Lewis at a tournament in Kentucky.
“A friend of mine said you may want to check out this Tennessee Tiger kid,” Wade recalled.
Lewis turned down the chance to be a two-sport athlete at Marshall in order to play basketball at VCU, where he is now a senior point guard entering this weekend's Atlantic 10 tournament with a berth in the NCAA Tournament at hand.
Was it hard to go from small-town Dickson to the urban campus of VCU?
“Not really. Dickson is 20 minutes from Nashville, and I spent a lot of time in Nashville. It was not too bad,” Lewis said.
With Wade in his second season as the head coach after Smart left for Texas, Lewis is averaging 14.3 points and 4.6 assists per game after he played in his last regular-season home game Saturday, a 72-60 victory over rival George Mason.
“One of the best point guards in the league,” said senior teammate Mo Alie-Cox.
Lewis finished with nine assists and no turnovers while playing 25 minutes and scoring just one point. In contrast he had a career-high 34 points last month against Saint Joseph’s. VCU had 20 assists as a team and just five turnovers against Mason.
“At the end of the day I am a point guard,” said Lewis, standing on the court at the Siegel Center late Saturday afternoon. “I know I can score. If my team needs me to score 30 I will score 30. Tonight it was all about getting my team involved. I have had my scoring spurts.”
VCU clinched the second seed in the A10 and will play Friday in Pittsburgh against the winner of Thursday's George Mason-Fordham game.
“We are a tournament team,” said Lewis, surrounded by family and friends in Richmond. “We are just ready to carry it forward.”
Mason, pegged for 12th in the conference in the preseason, is 19-12 overall and 9-9 in the Atlantic 10.
“I think we have made tremendous improvement,” Mason head coach Dave Paulsen said after Saturday’s game at VCU. “But we came down here to win. Their pressure … wears you down.”
That includes Lewis, who came up big in a pair of last-second road wins Feb. 4 at St. Bonaventure and Feb. 8 at George Washington.
He hit a free throw in the closing seconds to force overtime against the Bonnies when an administrative technical was called. VCU then won in overtime 83-77 as Lewis had 18 points and seven assists.
The scene was nearly repeated four days later in the nation’s capital, when Lewis hit two free throws with four-tenths of a second left as the Rams beat George Washington 54-53. Lewis scored all eight of his points in the final minutes.
Lewis scored a then career-high 29 points in a career-best 42 minutes last season at Richmond.
“It is fun; they are down the street from us,” he said of facing the Spiders. “I take it personally. When we are on the road the fans are right there with us.”
That will be the case in Pittsburgh, where the black and gold colors of VCU will mesh well in a city where the Pittsburgh Steelers are heavily lauded.
Lewis came off the bench in 35 games as a freshman and averaged 5.9 points and had 69 assists.
As a sophomore he played in 35 games, with 16 starts, and averaged 8.5 points with 95 assists.
Last season as a junior he played in 36 games, with 34 starts, and averaged 11.3 points and had 183 assists.
Lewis hopes to play pro basketball in North America after he graduates in May. The NBA is the goal, but he would take the D-league over playing overseas in order to be closer to family.
“If we keep winning, that will help. The D-league is just an opportunity,” he said.
David Driver is a freelance writer based in Cheverly, Md. Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonVaDriver