Two and a half minutes into Michigan’s game Saturday against George Washington, Charles Matthews caught the ball on the left wing and faced up against Colonials guard Justin Mazzulla.
The redshirt junior wing dribbled into the post and turned to back Mazzulla down before quickly spinning to his right and launching a high-arcing baseline jumper that found nothing but net.
It was a typical isolation setup: as Matthews received the entry pass from point guard Zavier Simpson, the Wolverines cleared out for their go-to-guy to do his thing. It’s these situations — Mazzulla on an island with a preseason All-Big Ten honoree — where individual talent, more than anything, can shine through.
The result? Two points for Michigan.
But while Matthews, the Wolverines’ leading returning scorer, came into the year as their presumed focal point — and showed why on that aforementioned play — the reality is a bit more complicated.
The 6-foot-6 forward from Chicago indeed averaged 13 points per game last season while shooting a respectable 49 percent. But at other times, Matthews delivered inconsistent performances seemingly at odds with his considerable talent and athleticism.
Matthews’ inconsistency with his jump shot and from the foul line — he hit just 32 percent of his 3-point attempts and 56 percent of his free throws — came coupled with decision-making struggles, as he led Michigan in turnovers last season. These deficiencies combined to create a lackluster 101.6 offensive rating, the lowest among the Wolverines’ regular rotation.
The start of the season saw more of the same. Against Norfolk State and Holy Cross, Matthews hit just 12 of 29 field goals, including a meager 20 percent figure from behind the arc, while turning the ball over five times.
It’s worth noting, however, that Matthews’ struggles coincided with an overall sluggish start for Michigan on offense, in which it averaged just 59.5 points per game on just 36.4 percent shooting. Meanwhile, Michigan coach John Beilein never lost faith in Matthews’ ability to get going.
“He was just 5-for-6 (on free throws during Monday’s practice),” Beilein said after the win over Norfolk State. “But he’s got to get through it, and it’s not a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. … Charles is better than that, and he will be as we go forward.”
Last Wednesday at Villanova, Beilein’s faith was rewarded.
Matthews paced the Wolverines with an unstoppable series of athletic finishes at the rim and midrange jumpers over smaller defenders, finishing with 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting. Against George Washington, he was even better, dropping in 25 points while hitting 10 of his 13 attempts from the field, and both from behind the arc.
Matthews’ offensive excellence didn’t continue against Providence on Sunday as he scored just five points. However, his performance over the last week was only partly about him finding his scoring touch — against the Wildcats, Colonials and Friars, Matthews had clearly found a role.
Instead of having to rely solely on Matthews as a source of playmaking, Michigan’s offense was expertly piloted by Simpson, who dished out 22 assists in those three contests. Meanwhile, the Wolverines began to catch fire from outside, shooting 44 percent from 3-point range for the weekend. These two developments, when taken in tandem, helped to take pressure off of Matthews in his areas of weakness, and allowed his strengths to rise to the forefront.
In isolation play, Matthews was just about unguardable with his high release on his jumper. He cleaned up on the boards — half his rebounds last week were on the offensive end — thanks to his athleticism. Perhaps most strikingly, he didn’t turn the ball over once last week.
“I play one-on-one a lot, and I feel like we all do,” Matthews said Saturday. “… Playing one-on-one, it makes us better defenders, but it also makes us better isolation players. There’s going to be times where you have to just make a shot.”
Over the last week, Michigan’s offense has begun to fire on all cylinders. Simpson’s emerged as the facilitator. Forward Ignas Brazdeikis is the downhill, ever-aggressive slasher. Center Jon Teske is the screen-and-roll weapon and pick-and-pop ‘5.’ Forward Isaiah Livers is the versatile, small-ball weapon to run teams off the floor. Guard Jordan Poole, after a sluggish start to the year, appears to have discovered his shooting stroke.
That leaves Matthews as the Wolverines’ isolation weapon in the midrange; the player they can turn to to get a shot off against any defense. It’s a role — judging by the last three games, at least — that fits him perfectly. It’s a role that lets him do what he does best, instead of having to do too much.
And it’s a role that may just allow him to become the go-to-guy he’s long been projected to be.