In the waning seconds of the game, it was Charles Matthews who stood at center court, dribbling the clock out on the Michigan men’s basketball team’s win over Indiana. It was appropriate, for a game where, for much of it, the redshirt junior wing had been a focal point.
Coming into the contest, a lot of the focus was on his matchup with Hoosier wing Romeo Langford. They were both highly ranked recruits out of high school, and in a way a microcosm of the different ways recruits can turn out. Langford is the player who’s living up to his hype, an instant star for Indiana who revitalized the Hoosiers after a down year. Matthews is the guy who never thought he’d be here, a fourth-year player who transferred from blue blood Kentucky after plans to go one-and-done didn’t work out.
Matthews — as sophomore guard Jordan Poole noted after the game — doesn’t usually think about matchups. He just looks at what’s in front of him and takes it from there. But this matchup was a little higher profile than most.
“He was fired up about this matchup,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Because he’s got respect and he knows how good that Langford is.”
And going against Langford, Matthews had perhaps his best performance of the year — firing up not just himself, but the team around him, carrying it to its 15th straight win.
It was just the second possession of the game when Matthews stripped the ball from Langford, then drew a foul. After the inbound, Poole hit a jumper.
Just over three minutes later, Matthews threw down a dunk right over Langford — and to add insult to injury, Langford fouled him on the shot. Matthews missed the and-one, but the play contributed something far more important. Just four minutes into the game, one of Indiana’s best players was already in foul trouble. He sat much of the remainder of the half.
“That was a designed play to see if we could get that second foul,” Beilein said. “And Charles paid attention, taking the ball strong then right then kinda get — not be as strong with it. That was a strong baseline drive, and that’s who he can be.”
For the rest of the half, it’s who he was. Matthews added two more dunks in the half, including one off an offensive rebound. He imposed his will on the Hoosiers, not letting them take anything on offense or on defense en route to 16 first-half points, three rebounds and three steals.
And beyond that, Matthews provided a veteran presence. He may have been fired up more than usual because of the matchup with Langford or the bright lights of a big game at Crisler, but it carried over to the rest of the team and kept the Wolverines rolling to an 11-point win.
“It’s a huge energy boost, for everyone, because he does so much,” Poole said. “He’ll get a tip deflection or he’ll go and he’ll get a steal or he’ll get a tip rebound of a 50-50 ball, so being able to see a leader out there hustling and being able to get easy buckets and transition buckets and being able to get the crowd going and give us a positive boost and positive momentum in anytime in the game is definitely huge for a game like this.”
And that goes back to Matthews, the fourth-year player who wasn’t supposed to be here. But he is, and now he’s transformed into a vocal guy on a young team. He’s the only fourth-year on the team, so it falls to him to provide the energy. As Matthews got going, Beilein realized it was time to get the ball in his hands more often. The coach drew up plays for him and trusted him to do his job.
Matthews then went out there and disrupted everything, from Indiana’s shooting to its spacing to its defense. He held Langford to just 5-for-11 from the field. He grabbed boards and forced turnovers to salvage empty possessions. Against a team like the Hoosiers, he made sure Michigan left nothing to chance.
“Don’t discount what Charles — Charles is just huge,” Beilein said. “It’s about winning. It’s about winning. This is his fourth year in college.
“Just wants to win.”