At last, Charles Matthews found himself a good look.
With the Wolverines down by two in the second half, the redshirt sophomore guard cut to the basket and flashed his arm up for the ball. The Penn State defender swung around into position, and Matthews pump-faked. The shot went up. Off the rim. He ripped down his own rebound. Another layup went up. It crawled off the hoop again.
The sequence would be Matthews’ last chance to convert on a night he simply couldn’t buy a bucket. He was bottled up offensively, struggled to pick his spots and finished the game with a towel draped over his head as he watched the rest of the Michigan men’s basketball team pull away from Penn State on Wednesday.
He’d finish with zero points for the first time this season.
“Charles is not playing with confidence,” said Michigan coach John Beilein afterwards. “I think right now he’s probably, as we’re coaching him, thinking too much.”
Three turnovers in the game’s first 15 minutes probably didn’t help that.
On the Wolverines’ second possession, Matthews drove from the corner and lost control of the ball as defenders collapsed. He was pick-pocketed minutes later and, finally, just before the under-four timeout, Matthews would again lose his dribble in a swarm of white jerseys.
That’s been Matthews’ turnover equation all year: the aggressiveness that makes him such a strong slasher backfires as he gets loose with the ball.
And when those issues came back Wednesday night, Matthews found himself sitting to start the second half in favor of freshman guard Jordan Poole — a rare, mid-game lineup adjustment for Beilein.
“I’m watching Charles right now, and he had three turnovers the other day, and he started out the first half with three turnovers,” Beilein said. “Not all of them were his fault, but he’s just not confident right now (with) just about anything.
“There are times where he gets himself into tough spots. And we got to teach him to ease his game a little bit just to make simple plays.”
That “simple play” mindset has fueled the reemergence of Poole, who went 4-of-8 with 13 points in 26 minutes — many of which came ahead of Matthews.
For the second straight game, Poole gave an immediate boost to Michigan’s offense. That included SportsCenter’s “Top Play” of Wednesday — an and-one posterization of 6-foot-10 Nittany Lions’ forward Julian Moore.
But Poole’s biggest moment of the night came on a more mundane play. With just over seven minutes to go, Poole doubled the Wolverines’ lead with a flick of the wrist from deep in the corner, cutting much of the momentum Penn State built with a furious start to the half.
“What Jordan Poole is giving us right now is really good,” Beilein said. “That 3 in the left corner was huge for us. He just gives us that extra shooter out there.”
While Beilein admits that Poole certainly has room to grow, Wednesday’s performance was another example of the calmer, more cerebral style he’s developed during Big Ten play. Yes, he still drives Beilein crazy with the occasional alley-oop and heat-check shot, but it’s clear that Poole has become more calculated with the ball.
“I’ve been making simple plays knowing that the ball is going to come back to you, and you don’t have to go out there and force every shot,” Poole said. “I’m being more patient and trying to find the best possible shot we can get.”
While Poole can fill in for spurts, he isn’t Michigan’s final answer opposite senior guard Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman — or at least not yet.
That’s still Matthews, as it was during non-conference play when he led the Wolverines in scoring.
“He won a lot of games for us early in the year,” Beilein said. “But right now, it’s not fair to the other guys when he’s not playing with the same swagger that he had earlier.”
But hope isn’t lost — even amidst a five-game stretch when Matthews has averaged just 6.4 points-per-game. Beilein has instructed Matthews to take shots after practice, watch extra film and pay special attention to making the right pass.
It hasn’t materialized recently like it has for Poole. Still, Matthews is essential for Michigan, and even through struggles, his coach knows it.
“We’re trying to get him back because we need him,” Beilein said.