ANAHEIM, Calif. — Given that this could be the last practice of Charles Matthews’ college career, he carries a remarkable air of normalcy.
The redshirt junior gets on the floor and stretches his legs out, the foam roller vibrating just as always. He’s sitting next to Zavier Simpson and Isaiah Livers and then he’s shooting around with them before John Beilein starts a passing drill. The ball moves, but it doesn’t quite hum. Matthews darts towards the basket with his hands up, knowing the drill calls for the ball to go elsewhere. His facial expression is mostly the same serious look he’s carried with him for the last two seasons. He’s done this before. Shoes squeak. Just as always.
It is an open secret that Matthews will go to the NBA — most of his teammates and coaches have ditched the formality of pretending — so technically speaking, every practice last week in Des Moines, Iowa, could have been his last. But this is the first where it really, truly feels that tomorrow, Michigan could lose to a team that just might be better. The Wolverines are favored by all of two points, a margin small enough that few will write about what this season could have been if it ends with a Sweet Sixteen loss to Texas Tech, the only defense ranking ahead of the Wolverines in KenPom.
But Charles Matthews will wonder.
Matthews will guard Red Raiders wing Jarrett Culver on Thursday, a matchup on which the game’s result could hinge. A likely top-10 pick against someone whose chance at an NBA career will come down to guarding top-10 picks.
“He can score on all three levels,” assistant coach Luke Yaklich said of Culver. “And then he passes the ball. He can get you an offensive rebound. He can score in the post. He can get you off a ball-screen with his pull-up jumper, getting to the rim. He can beat you off the ball-screen by passing it out to open shooters. Then he can beat you off the ball-screen by getting it to the rim, to the bigs.”
In short, he does damn near everything.
In preparing, Matthews is even-keeled. “There’s not a lot of peaks and valleys with Charles,” Yaklich said. “He’s a mentally tough kid.” Where others watch film then rewind, then rewind again, then still don’t get it, Matthews sees things once and digests.
In the run-up to a late-November game against North Carolina this season, the coaches were walking through some of the Tar Heels’ concepts. They hadn’t brought up a certain baseline cross-screen yet — one of the base actions in Roy Williams’ offense. So Matthews did.
When North Carolina ran it in the game?
“Charles was right on top of it,” remembered walk-on forward C.J. Baird.
Two seasons ago, Matthews arrived in Ann Arbor from a Kentucky program which has an ethos that juxtaposes Michigan’s in every conceivable way. Now, he is one of the culture-setters for John Beilein.
“I feel like it’s just all experience, and he has a lot of experience, coming from a really top-tier (program) that he came from, coming to another top-tier,” Livers, a sophomore forward, said. “It’s just bringing all the knowledge you learn (into watching film).”
Just before, Livers had been asked about Matthews as a “leader by example,” which is usually code for, “a senior who doesn’t talk very much.” This time of year, you hear a lot about leaders by example, and the label has stuck to Matthews. The difference is, Matthews picks his spots to talk — halftime against Florida, in the aftermath of a disastrous loss at Penn State — and does so with maximal impact.
“I don’t think he was ever one of those shy guys,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “I think that he was always very confident in himself and his abilities. And so when you got a kid like that who has that kind of confidence about himself, it’s an easy transition for him.”
One of the core tenants of the culture Matthews has helped build is to settle for nothing less than championship-level play.
After that game against North Carolina, where the Wolverines smacked the Tar Heels — holding them 30 points below their average and winning by 17 — he rejected a reporter’s assumption that Michigan played good defense. After hitting a buzzer-beater against Minnesota in January, he expressed only disappointment that the Wolverines didn’t run the Gophers out of the gym. After that loss at Penn State, he was sullen and angry and letting everybody know it.
“Charles approaches every game the same way,” Yaklich said. “It’s a steady, methodical approach in how he prepares in practice, then his pregame routine to how he goes through things in pregame warmups to his coaching in media timeouts. It’s what makes Charles really, really good.”
So against the Red Raiders, it’s no surprise that Matthews takes the same approach, holds the same expectation. It’s just as always, even if it’s for the last time.