DES MOINES, Iowa — Charles Matthews ran down the floor with some urgency, shooting the moment the ball came to him. He heard the buzzer sound, saw the basket light up red and the ball roll around the rim with the guise of a shooter’s bounce, before falling out. Then he smiled. There was no reason for frustration.
Matthews, at that point, already had 11 points on the night, more than he scored in the last two combined. He finished with 22 on 8-of-12 shooting with 10 rebounds, which wouldn’t be particularly notable for him in a 74-55 win over Montana that defined routine, if the redshirt junior’s last month had gone normally.
But 25 days ago against Michigan State, Matthews got hurt and decided to play the second half through it. He finished that game with four points on 1-of-8 shooting, too hobbled to guard Cassius Winston or Matt McQuaid. Then he sat the next three.
“Dumb,” Matthews said of that decision last week in Chicago. “But you just get lost in the game sometimes. And I know I’m a competitor. I don’t think I’m much like no macho man or anything like that. I’ve got some toughness to me. It wasn’t the best decision at the time.”
When he said that, it was in Michigan’s locker room after a similarly nonchalant Big Ten Tournament win over Iowa. Matthews donned a brace in his first game back, played well enough on defense to mask any hurt but shot 1-of-9 from the field. That would have been an admission that he wasn’t 100 percent if Matthews didn’t make the confession himself.
Instead of being a part of the stretch run, and a second loss to the Spartans in which the Big Ten title was in the balance, Matthews sat on the bench. Instead of being able to give his best in the Big Ten Tournament, Matthews played with that brace, struggled, and the Wolverines lost to the Spartans again.
This came after a period in which Matthews played some of his best basketball and spoke at his loudest, publicly admonishing his team after a loss at Penn State and earning the full trust of his coaches in the process.
“When you got a player-led team this time of year, they’ve been through the ways,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. “They’ve been on the floor. So they see some things that we don’t see. I was like that as a player, too. You see things like, ‘Hey, coach, we should do this.’ And if they feel like it’s gonna work, we trust them that it’s gonna be the right thing.”
On Thursday night, the brace was off and Matthews was every bit himself, and maybe a little more.
“I was happy just to be out there the last few games,” Matthews said. “It’s still a different atmosphere when you go, feel like yourself a little.”
Early in the game, as Grizzlies point guard Timmy Falls took what appeared to be an uncontested layup, Matthews swooped in over him, forcing a miss and prompting one member of Montana’s traveling party sitting on press row to exclaim, “Jesus.” The lone time the Grizzlies seemed to pull themselves within arms length, cutting the Wolverines’ lead to eight early in the second half, Matthews followed a Jordan Poole 3-pointer with a long two from the corner. Then he drifted into space beyond the arc off a Zavier Simpson drive and found bottom on a three.
Michigan’s lead never dipped below 14 again. And if the Wolverines are to do more this month than beat up on a 15-seed, that’s the type of game they need from Matthews.
“It means everything for us, because when he’s able to play at this level, it opens up so much more for us offensively,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “Because it’s another guy in our arsenal to have to take account for.”
It’s more than that, though. Matthews is one of the most forceful voices in the locker room, one of the driving forces behind this team’s success on both sides of the floor. He and John Beilein agreed that they wouldn’t go over the top in rehabbing to get back for the postseason. Matthews was, by all accounts, as much a coach on the bench as any of the actual coaches. He still hated sitting.
“You see your team out there and there’s nothing really you can do,” he said. “You want to be out there.”
Through all of that, though, the goal stayed the same. It still does. Matthews remembers the feeling of sitting in the locker room last year as Villanova celebrated down the hall. He wants to avoid it. “We really just, will feel empty if we don’t take it all this year,” he said.
So, as Matthews walked through the tunnel, slapping hands and signing autographs after an NCAA Tournament game in which he was the star — a moment in which he could have revelled — he had just three words.
“Let’s get it.”