When he steps in front of cameras, Charles Matthews, by nature, is quiet — both by the volume of his voice and the substance of his words.
On the night of Jan. 22, though, after Matthews hit a buzzer-beater to pull Michigan over Minnesota in a game it had no business winning, a throng of media surrounded him and, in the most unlikely setting possible, he started to divulge.
The Wolverines played poorly that night, nearly blowing what should have been an easy home win thanks to a listless offense, as had Matthews himself. Buzzer-beater aside, seven points on 3-of-7 shooting and a 76 offensive rating, as measured by KenPom, wasn’t going to cut it. Neither was anything else Michigan did that night — the second game in a row it hadn’t looked like itself.
Matthews, an internal leader, started to explain why.
“I told the team, Zavier (Simpson) told us as well, we kinda gotta loosen up,” he said. “We kinda playing kinda tense out there. We understand we wanna have a perfect season. We wanna win, but we still gotta be out there playing with smiles on our faces, having fun and competing to win that.”
It’s no coincidence the Wolverines have lost in two of Matthews’ three worst performances by offensive rating, nor should it surprise that their offense has generally lagged when he has struggled. The reason behind that is simple. When Michigan’s offense lags, it falls back on Matthews. In turn, Matthews falls back on contested midrange jump shots, which don’t do much for anyone.
That’s why, as the Wolverines jumped out to an early lead on as part of a 77-65 win over Rutgers on Tuesday night, their offense humming, it was Matthews greasing the skids.
When the Scarlet Knights cut the lead to 10 — seeming to weather Michigan’s initial onslaught — Matthews nailed a three on the right wing. Then he came off his man to block Geo Baker. Then he went to the midrange, nailing a fadeaway jumper.
In a half where the Wolverines scored 1.43 points per possession, that was the only midrange shot Matthews took for the first 15 minutes.
Take what you will from a Tuesday in Piscataway. But this is what Matthews — and by proxy, Michigan’s offense — will look like in March if the Wolverines are to live up to their potential.
“He’s gotta embrace, just, this thing right now,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Tuesday. “He’s in his fourth year playing college basketball. He’s got interesting decisions at the end of the year. He just needs to do exactly what he’s doing today. Just go attack. Enjoy every game, take the ball to the basket. Shoot the open three when you got it. And that — those turnaround shots at the beginning looked like, ‘Oh my god, we’re back at Villanova,’ right? The way he started that game.”
Matthews’ defense will buoy Michigan on his worst day. As it relates to the Wolverines’ ceiling, and Matthews’ NBA prospects, all that is set in stone.
It’s the rest that’s in question. A relatively unassuming 11-point performance can provide one hell of an answer.
“That’s who he is,” Beilein said. “That’s why you saw me. I grabbed him and I looked at him. I said, ‘That’s who you are, Charles. That’s who you are. And don’t think anything different.’ ”