Everything was seemingly going to plan for Charles Matthews.
Through December, the redshirt sophomore guard averaged over 16 points-per-game and shot a remarkable 56 percent from the floor. Using his 6-foot-6, 200-pound frame, Matthews could slash around weaker defenders throughout non-conference play for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
That addressed a certain level of unpredictability that surrounded Matthews before the season. After transferring from Kentucky and sitting out last season, his fit within the Wolverines’ offense was a mystery.
But 15 games into his Michigan career, Matthews was a mystery no longer. Instead, he proved himself as the Wolverines’ best scorer.
“I think he’s starting to understand how it all fits together,” said coach John Beilein after Matthews scored 29 points against Alabama A&M on Dec. 22.
Fast forward five weeks, and it’s been a different story for the Chicago native.
Matthews’ numbers have dipped. In the nine conference games since the New Year, he’s shooting 44 percent and averaging 11.6 points per game — third on the team behind junior center Mortiz Wager and senior guard Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
The drop led to a key conversation between Matthews and his coaches.
“The coaches let me know that I had to find the balance between not forcing it, but then not over ‘letting-it-come-to-me.’ ” Matthews said. “I had to find that medium, and coaches are still working with me on that.”
Matthews failed to find that balance against Maryland earlier this month. He frequently relied on off-balance jump shots, going 3-for-10 from the floor with a pair of turnovers.
“I want him to hunt,” Beilein said. “But there’s certain shots that (he) hunts that are tough twos — just not good analytically, and it’s proven they’re not good shots to take.”
On Monday in Michigan’s win over Northwestern, Matthews avoided many of those tought twos. In a performance reminiscent of those early in the season, he led the Wolverines with 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting.
But most impressive was Matthews’ offensive awareness that has escaped him at times. Twice he broke a stifling defense by getting behind the back line of the Wildcats’ 2-3 zone for dunks.
That awareness was also paramount to Matthews’ ability to facilitate for others. Faced with a double-team roughly midway through the first half, for example, Matthews found sophomore center Jon Teske before Northwestern’s defense could rotate completely, leading to a bucket and a foul.
It was one of five assists on the night for Matthews — the second straight game his passing ability has impressed his coach.
“He had six assists at Purdue (last Thursday),” Beilein said. “That was a monumental move for him to see that and score some points.”
Matthews’ blending of scoring and passing has made Beilein’s own balancing act even tougher. Matthews, Abdur-Rahkman and freshman Jordan Poole are all strong scoring assets, but Beilein can’t play all three simultaneously without sacrificing the presence of a true point guard on the court.
When Matthews committed his first foul early in Monday’s contest, Poole was the first off the bench. Frequently, Beilein employs a flip-flopping of the two.
“We understand that — that’s why we’re both laughing,” Matthews said. “We have that great relationship where it’s like, ‘He better not make this shot, because I know I’m coming in.’
“I call him J.R. Smith — the human microwave. He loves that. In fact, I’m not going to call him that because he wants to be called that.”
Just as it is for Matthews, balance is the key for Poole, who doesn’t find many shots he doesn’t like. Sometimes, that draws ire from his coaches.
But if he and Matthews can find a happy medium — both with the ball and in their usage — it could lead to more offensive harmony for Michigan.
“We both have these crazy scoring mindsets,” Matthews said. “Every time we get open, we want to shoot, but there’s a whole offense as well. I try to mentor him as well, just trying to balance it all.”