It’s fair to assume nobody anticipated Friday’s exhibition game against Grand Valley State more eagerly than Charles Matthews.
For most, the game amounted to nothing more than a glorified scrimmage and a chance to regain shape.
For Matthews, it was a lot more.
After all, the last time the redshirt sophomore played a competitive basketball game was Mar. 1, 2016, when he played only one minute in Kentucky’s season-ending loss to Indiana. He didn’t register a single stat that night.
“I was so nervous,” Matthews said. “I was just trying to continue to get comfortable, playing out there. I feel like my comfort level is going to continue to increase.”
Fittingly, it was Matthews who would christen the season, nailing a 3-point shot from the corner off a feed from junior forward Moritz Wagner on the team’s first possession. He made just one three his entire freshman season at Kentucky.
“I love when he hit his first three,” Beilein said. “We see it in practice, we watch it. But the fact that he wasn’t afraid to take it — and he went and made it.”
Just two possessions later, Matthews found a pocket in the zone at the top of the key. With no hesitation, he caught the ball and immediately elevated, knocking down a fadeaway jumper. A possesion later, he dribbled his way into post position, spun on his defender and hit another jumper from the block.
“I don’t know why it is, to me, not that we haven’t had good players begin their season and miss shots. Good players have done that,” Beilein said. “But it seems to me like — the Hardaways and the Stauskas,’ the guys I’ve had — whatever it is, they come out and from the time they touch it they’re comfortable.”
Matthews scored seven of the team’s first 10 points en route to a dominant performance in Michigan’s 82-50 win over Grand Valley State.
He led the team in points (23), minutes (29) and shots (14). Last season, Matthews could do nothing but watch, waiting patiently for his turn as he took his required redshirt year. Friday, it was everyone else who watched, as Matthews executed with the efficiency, electricity and excellence only the most optimistic fans could have anticipated.
For fifth-year senior point guard Jaaron Simmons, Matthews’ performance was nothing out of the ordinary. When asked about his reaction to Matthews’ game, Simmons seemed perplexed.
“Were you surprised?” he paused. “Yeah, I wasn’t surprised. That’s my roommate, I know what he can do. He does it every day in practice.”
But for those on the outside, it was the Charles Matthews welcoming party.
He executed with the ball in his hands, routinely driving past his man and either finishing or distributing accordingly. He executed off the ball, finding pockets of space in zones and off out-of-bounds plays.
Exhibition and competition caveats aside, Matthews showed range from all levels of the court, length to disrupt his opponents defensively and glimpes of Glenn Robinson-esque athleticism. Quite simply, he was the best player on the floor.
Though Matthews has only played more than 24 minutes once in his collegiate career, Beilein said he could average 32 to 35 minutes per game this season.
And if Friday’s performance is any indication, Beilein may have no choice but to play Matthews that much, especially if he continues to integrate himself within the system.
For most players on the court, the exhibition game was nothing more than a tune-up. The result on the socreboard didn’t signal much more, either. But for Charles Matthews it was a major hurdle in his already topsy-turvy career, a chance he has been waiting for for nearly two years.
Hurdle cleared. Room to spare.