LOS ANGELES, Calif. — A trip to the Final Four hung in the balance. Charles Matthews got the ball.
The redshirt sophomore wing drove to his left with a defender draped closely alongside him.
The Charles Matthews of December or January or yesteryears might have flung up a listless floater or forced a contested fadeaway midrange jumper. That’s the Charles Matthews that Beilein has described ineffectually all season as “Bambi on ice.”
That Charles Matthews? He’s long gone.
This Charles Matthews hopped into the lane vigorously, surveyed his options, offered a deceiving pump fake and nailed a composed fadeaway jumper to extend Michigan’s lead to 49-44 with 3:51 left.
This Charles Matthews just played the game and the month of his life. This Charles Matthews just led Michigan to the Final Four with 17 points and eight rebounds in a 58-54 win.
And with maize and blue confetti falling from the roof, shaking his head repeatedly in disbelief at the bottom of the podium, a radiant smile covering his face, that Charles Matthews could have never imagined this Charles Matthews would be in this position: Hearing his name called as the NCAA Tournament West Region’s Most Outstanding Player.
As he let it all soak in, assistant coach Luke Yaklich draped his arm around Matthews.
“Charles has talked about where he’s come from and how much he’s been through to get here,” Yaklich said. “There’s not a better kid that deserves it more — we have great kids, they all deserve it — Charles has earned every bit of that moment.”
Matthews chuckled when asked about that play, probably because he could still hear the echoes of Michigan coach John Beilein’s voice pestering him in practice for the last two years.
Land on two feet, Charles. Utitlize your pump fake, Charles. Pivot more effectively, Charles. Take smarter shots, Charles. You gotta use your athleticism, Charles.
Things never come easy for transfers in college basketball, not even for former five-stars from Kentucky. And Matthews’ transition into Beilein’s complex scheme was certainly no different.
Matthews struggled to learn the plays — and more importantly struggled to grasp the nuance of his role within an offense predicated on nuance.
Matthews was trying to expand his jumper beyond the 3-point line — he shot just four his entire freshman season and made just one. He’s taken 98 this year. That came with its fair share of trials and not nearly enough payout. He would shoot a more comfortable pull-up 2-pointer in practice and would get scolded for it. Then he’d take the three Beilein so often implored and miss it.
“He’d shoot a shot in practice, and Coach would get on him really bad about telling him that’s a bad shot,” said freshman guard Jordan Poole. “Then he’d have an open look and he wouldn’t take it because he felt like it was a bad shot. He’d be thinking too much.”
That frustration festered. It often manifested itself in yelling at teammates or long, lonely trips up to section 212 of Crisler Center — the destination of players who Beilein needs to punish in practice.
“Last year, all I used to hear in practice was turnover Matthews, turnover Matthews,” he said. “And ‘Go see 212.’ ”
But he worked. Hard.
“For him to come in and just buy in,” Beilein said. “I’m talking 1000 percent, to the culture, to individual workouts, scouting reports, to all the things that sometimes guys who are recruited so highly have a hard time buying into.”
Added assistant coach Saddi Washington: “That has been a year-long process, and to see him grow and evolve into who he is as a player now is just special. … And in the biggest moment, on the biggest stage, simple drills that we work on every day makes the difference between going home or going to San Antonio for the Final Four.”
But it wasn’t a perfectly linear ascent. From Jan. 2 until the end of the regular season, Matthews didn’t score above 15 points in a single game. He averaged 10 points per game in that span, a far cry from the offensive alpha dog that showed its face in Maui earlier in the year. His shot disappeared, and the trepedation that Poole described reared its ugly head in games.
Since then, his game has taken a defiant turn.
In four NCAA Tournament games, Matthews leads the team at 16.5 points per game. His ability to attack the basket has proven consistent and valuable, especially when the volatile 3-point shot isn’t falling.
While his game evolved on the court, his voice grew along with it. One day late in the year, after a practice filled with some ups and plenty of downs, the team broke the huddle as usual and began walking toward the locker room.
Matthews wasn’t having it.
“Charles said, ‘No, no, no, come back. We’re national champions,’ ” recalled freshman Isaiah Livers. “And he does it again. ‘National champs. National champs.’ It’s just a little chant we’ve been doing since the Big Ten Tournament.”
Next weekend, in what once seemed unthinkable, Michigan will get its shot to make that proclamation a reality for the first time since 1989.
It has this Charles Matthews to thank for that.