For much of last season, redshirt junior Charles Matthews cast a frustrating figure for the Michigan men’s basketball team. The forward combined elite defense and athleticism with an inability to score consistently, especially outside the paint.
That version of Matthews returned just seconds into the Wolverines’ game against Holy Cross on Saturday night. Austin Butler spotted up for a seemingly uncontested 3-pointer on the Crusaders’ first possession before Matthews appeared from out of nowhere to deflect his attempt out of bounds.
On the other end, it was Matthews’ turn to be stymied offensively. He attempted two of Michigan’s three shots on its first possession — both from the right wing, both uncontested and both rimming out.
The rest of the half was an unusual mix. He hit two threes and a long two but missed six field goals — all jump-shots — as the Wolverines went into halftime with just 18 points on five-of-24 shooting.
“We’re gonna have games like that,” Matthews said. “Especially early in the season, we’re still learning how to play with one another, we’re still learning how to attack certain defenses. So you can’t really get down about missed shots or anything like that. You just gotta continue to play.”
Matthews matched his first half point total after the break to finish with 20 on the day, but that was about the only similarity between the halves for Michigan. It outscored Holy Cross, 38-13, in the second and upped its field goal percentage to 50 on 13-for-26 shooting.
For Matthews, the difference was obvious.
For all the attention he receives as a player, Matthews prefers to avoid it off the court. He rarely goes off-script in press conferences, often stifling his voice to be barely audible. Saturday evening was much of the same — until a reporter asked him to explain the first-half struggles.
“We have a lot of athletes on this team, we got a lot of people that can put the ball on the floor,” Matthews said. “Coach is doing a great job coaching, coming up with offensive schemes, but sometimes we just gotta go.
“… And sometimes, I feel like we can be indecisive looking for the right time to score or the right shot to take and we miss shots cause we’re thinking, ‘Is this the time to shoot it?’ When we just hoop, we’re a different dynamic. We don’t have Moe and we don’t have Duncan, and those are great players. But we have players now that can put the ball on the floor and try to get to the basket, and I feel like we need to play to those strengths also.”
Getting downhill to the hoop is clearly a winning strategy for Matthews. Eight of his 10 second-half points came inside the paint, as did all five of his field goals in the opener against Norfolk State.
The Wolverines’ reliance on scoring inside makes them different than any team that coach John Beilein has ever had at Michigan. And much of that falls on Matthews.
“I feel like we have a team full of hunters, but me and Charles talk about it all the time, how we both need to be aggressive,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, who finished just behind Matthews with 19 points on Saturday. “And we can play off of each other as well.”
Added Beilein: “They’re hunters and we just gotta continue on them being guys that shoot straight. I think Charles was 3-for-9 at one time and he’s gonna be better than that.”
But there’s a balance to playing aggressively in Beilein’s offense.
“Not putting your head down and going — that gets you subbed out,” Matthews said. “But looking to attack and staying aggressive.”
For an offense that lacks natural scorers that the Wolverines have become accustomed to, the entire season may rely on Matthews finding that balance.