Charles Matthews walked into practice last week with some words in mind.
The redshirt junior had just watched his Michigan team travel to State College and lose to the Big Ten’s doormat, an uninspiring performance from a group mired in the thick of the race for a conference title. He felt there was a lack of effort, focus, urgency — and said as much when asked about it after the game. Then he came into practice and told his teammates the same thing.
“He was talking about lack of discipline,” said sophomore forward Isaiah Livers. “Lack of personnel — the night before, you gotta read your personnel, know it’s your guy or potentially who you’re gonna guard.”
Livers left unsaid whether the Wolverines read those reports before the Penn State game. He didn’t need to say whether they did before Saturday’s 65-52 win over Maryland, a game in which Michigan’s defense clamped down in a way reminiscent of, well, Michigan’s defense.
The Wolverines’ lead built to 25-10 early on, then plateaued, as offensive stagnation allowed the Terrapins back within three points midway through the second half. It was the defense they fell back on, and it was the defense that proved reliable. Over 34 minutes — a team-high — Matthews held point guard Anthony Cowan just 4-for-12 from the field with three turnovers.
“He shut out anybody that he guarded,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Really an incredible performance. And he was tired, too. My assistants were thinking we should give him a timeout, and I just refused. I’ll call a timeout before we get him off the court.”
Beyond himself, the Wolverines’ performance early on — laser-focused, disciplined and jumping down the opposition’s throat — mirrored what Matthews stressed after Tuesday.
Getting vocal in practice is not Charles Matthews’ natural domain. During his time at Michigan, he has spoken up on occasion and with impact, but for the most part, Matthews has been cast as a leader by his actions. When applied to an upperclassman on a college basketball team, that phrase usually means someone is seen as a leader because of their age, but not much else. As much as Matthews has undoubtedly helped set a culture for the Wolverines, it’s junior guard Zavier Simpson whose voice is the loudest on a day-to-day basis inside Michigan’s locker room.
That may be changing.
“The Charles that we all knew in that first semester is not that same Charles,” Livers said. “He was more of a leader by example. Now he’s starting to step up and speak more like a Zavier Simpson.”
Michigan couldn’t ask for it at a better time. Its play has leveled off in the last month. After ripping through the first 12 weeks of the year undefeated, the Wolverines have lost three times in the last four — and they haven’t looked particularly good in some of the wins.
Things aren’t about to get easier, either. Two of their last four regular season games are against Michigan State, and March is an animal that can’t be tackled by a group approaching burnout. In what is likely his last year of college basketball, Matthews has taken it upon himself to make sure burnout doesn’t happen.
“He’d rather just lead by example, but we have such a young team,” Beilein said. “We don’t even have a true senior on this team. Somebody has to do — we need another voice beside (Simpson). Jon (Teske’s) talking more, too, but still, that’s not Jon’s deal. So we need another leader. And he’s doing it.”
Matthews declared for the NBA Draft last season, waiting until the last day to announce he would return to Michigan. Before this season started, he openly acknowledged plans to declare again — this time without coming back. This isn’t technically his senior year, but he can graduate and doesn’t seem to long for college basketball.
All the signs are pointing in the same direction. To what he wants out of next month, and to why.
“He’s got a sense of urgency to win this year,” Beilein said. “And make a decision after the season, but win this year so that he doesn’t look back and say, ‘I didn’t do enough in my senior year.’ ”