BLOOMINGTON — Charles Matthews stood in the back of Crisler Center’s media room on Tuesday night, wearing a sly smile and a sober tone. A little earlier, the redshirt junior had won a game for Michigan, hanging in the air for what seemed like a millisecond too long as ball found net, the buzzer sounded and the Wolverines avoided disaster.
You wouldn’t have known it from talking to him. Michigan had let Minnesota inch back into the game until it was the Wolverines who had their backs against the wall. That was what Matthews cared about.
“Usually, we all have a saying,” he said. “We usually come out to the game looking, we be like, ‘Alright, let’s run ‘em out the gym.’ And we usually put our foot on their neck and touch it to the floor. But this game, they made some big shots.”
The subtext: We let them make some big shots.
Four nights later, as 17,222 fans at Assembly Hall rose to their feet, the Hoosiers having slowly cut into a Wolverines’ lead until a domineering performance again turned into a single-digit game, a defender collapsed off Ignas Brazdeikis and the ball found the freshman forward in the corner. The ensuing shot found bottom.
The ensuing run — keyed by Matthews, who responded to a literal kick in the head by scoring seven straight points and continuing to make Indiana’s Romeo Langford his plaything on defense — put away an eventual 69-46 win.
The Hoosiers, who came into Friday’s game the losers of five straight, then started it by embarrassing themselves and letting the Wolverines jump out to a 17-0 run, had every reason to throw all the effort they had into the second half. If that was what they did, it didn’t matter.
“At the end of the day, I felt like the energy’s gonna change,” said junior guard Zavier Simpson. “Once we see Charles doing that (to Langford), it kinda rubs off to myself, rubs off to Iggy, rubs off to the rest of the floor, players on the floor. We see that. We feed off that. Just keep it going.”
The thing about a 17-0 start, whether it be on the season or in an individual game: it lends itself to complacency. On Friday, Michigan refused to fall into that trap.
This game could have easily gotten close. The Wolverines suffered multiple offensive lulls. The crowd stayed in it until the very end. Indiana’s chances were there. Michigan didn’t let it take them.
“I don’t think anyone realizes as a coach how you envy that situation where you got off to a great start, how difficult that is to manage,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “When you get off to that great start, what happens in the game, if you lose that game, it’s nothing. To up that much that early. Nothing. To manage and have your kids persevere through it is really good, especially when they make that little run to get to 10.”
That’s a product of a culture instilled by Matthews and Simpson and Beilein — one of accountability, that doesn’t allow satisfaction to creep in after a poor performance that happens to have a W next to it.
“We maintain (intensity),” Simpson said. “Look at what we control, know our scouting reports. Get the Xs and Os from coaches. Just maintain it. There’s no special or secret ingredient to what we do. We just play together, listen to the coaches and do things we can control.”
Simpson was then asked whether that had been a particular focus this week.
“It’s emphasized every single day,” he said.
This week, two completely different games proved him right.