ROSEMONT, Ill. — A little over six months ago, sitting slumped in his locker, Charles Matthews was asked about foul trouble.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson had both picked up two early fouls in the Michigan basketball team’s eventual blowout loss to Villanova in the National Championship final. How big of a role had that played in the Wolverines unraveling?

“I don’t know, man,” Matthews said, exasperated. We lost, man. Simple as that, man.”

That was the end of Matthews’ interaction with the media.

It was Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson, along with Moritz Wagner, who were surrounded by cameras in the locker room that night, after the toughest moment in their basketball careers. Matthews, despite his prowess throughout the postseason, sat in solitude.

Matthews led behind closed doors — galvanizing Michigan before its first-round win over Montana — and he could leave the public stuff to his teammates. Much as Zavier Simpson was the voice of the team — spearheading a defense that allowed the Wolverines to charge into the Final Four. If he didn’t want to talk, he too could leave it to the guys more comfortable in front of a camera.

That’s not the case anymore. Wagner and Robinson are in the NBA. Abdur-Rahkman signed with a G-League team last week. At Big Ten Media Day on Thursday, Matthews and Simpson made up the contingent of Michigan players in attendance, fielding 50 straight minutes of questions ranging from the pressing to the mundane.

Already, the two have become the Wolverines’ unquestioned leaders on the court. Just ask Michigan coach John Beilein.

“Zavier and Charles have everybody’s ear without question,” Beilein said. “They probably have as much an ear as Moe had last year and Duncan had. That’s where they are.

“… You know you’re in a good place when I stop play, we need to make a correction and Zavier’s talking to (freshman guard) Dave DeJulius, Charles is talking to (freshman guard) Adrien Nunez and I have to wait for them to finish. Because they’re teaching, ‘No, this is what we do.’ That’s a great sign for our team.”

That leadership is the biggest reason why it’s not a particularly big deal the Wolverines have no seniors on the roster. There’s no vacuum. But this is different.

It will likely fall on Simpson and Matthews to answer for every tough loss and every near-miss. That can be uncomfortable and awkward, and often means fielding everybody’s theory about why you just didn’t have it today.

“Not really,” Simpson said when asked if he feels better at doing that now. “I just try to be the best leader I can with things like that.”

Let’s be clear: Michigan won’t lose a single game because Matthews and Simpson don’t love to speak to the media. But it does put them in an unfamiliar spot, taking on a different kind of leadership.

Last year, Matthews watched Robinson in those situations, answering for struggles of his own during a midseason shooting slump as often as those of the team, never losing patience or breaking form.

“It all goes on,” Matthews said. “At times, we probably feel like it’s the end of the world, but just seeing how (Robinson) was able to respond and bounce back, definitely fueled a lot of us as a team to go on.”

Doubtless, that night in San Antonio was one of those times. This year, it will be Matthews and Simpson playing that role, in public and private alike.

“I mean, it’s good but it’s also long,” Simpson said at the tail end of his 50 minutes. “That’s what leaders do.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *