Ann Arbor — Everything seemed to be going Charles Matthews’ way throughout the first half of the season.
Matthews, a redshirt sophomore forward, poured in at least 20 points in six of Michigan’s 13 nonconference games and shot 58.2 percent (92-for-158) from the field as he established himself as the top scoring option.
But things have gone awry in recent weeks and Matthews’ numbers have taken a dip in Big Ten play.
Through 11 conference games, he’s shooting 43.7 percent (45-for-103) and ranks third on the team in scoring with 10.5 points, behind junior center Moritz Wagner (12.9 points) and senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (11.5 points). Three of his four single-digit scoring performances also have come against Big Ten foes.
While there’s an adjustment to be made between nonconference and conference play, Matthews said it has less to do with the increased defensive competition and more about improving his shot selection.
“I can’t really force it. Coaches let me know that I had to find a balance between not forcing it but then not overly letting it come to me,” Matthews said after leading Michigan with 14 points in Monday’s 58-47 win over Northwestern.
“I was trying to sometimes force it and be too aggressive, and other times I’d be like, ‘All right, I’m just going to let the game come to me.’ So, I had to find that medium, that balance that coaches want and I’m still working at it.”
Last week, Michigan coach John Beilein said the biggest issue with Matthews is his balance and noted he looks like “Bambi on ice” at times. It’s led to Matthews taking off-balance jump shots and layups, throwing poor passes on kick-outs when he drives into the lane, and traveling when he gets trapped or cut off by a defender.
While Matthews continues to clean up that area of his game and work on playing with balance, Beilein said he wants him to not just seek shots, but the right shots.
“There’s certain shots that you hunt that just are tough 2s,” Beilein said Monday. “They’re just not good analytically and it’s proven they’re not good shots to take. At shot clock time, then he’s got to really hunt. I think sometimes he’s still learning when I’m in a ball screen or I’m doing things I got to look at the basket but also when people come in — he didn’t have a walk.
“A lot of those issues were getting him, but getting in there when I have people on me — he had six assists at Purdue. That was a monumental move for him to be able to see that and score some points. He’s still got to hunt shots. He’s got to be a guy that’s out there. He’s got to be a wolf for us.”
Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson’s late-game struggles at the free-throw line surfaced once again.
With Michigan leading by eight with 3:28 to play, Northwestern began fouling and sending the Wolverines to the line.
Simpson was fouled with 1:49 to go and made both free throws to make it an 11-point game. But on the ensuing possession, Simpson was fouled again and missed his next two attempts.
“I was taking him out if he missed them, the first two. We were going to go with Jordan (Poole),” Beilein said. “We have a plan there. I had (Simpson) inbound the ball late and if you hear me yelling, ‘Ohio’ it means he’s inbounding the ball.
“It’s like is he ever going to make them if I never have him in there? So, it’s like he made the first two, all right, let’s roll with him. He missed the next two, OK you had your chance. Get out of there and let’s get somebody else in there.”
Beilein said the team is still working at making adjustments when opponents start purposely fouling late.
“Jordan Poole is an exceptional foul shooter as is Muhammad and Duncan (Robinson),” he said. “We’re trying to get those three in there and have a different press breaker to make sure our best three foul shooters always have the ball.”
For the season, Simpson is shooting 50 percent (21-for-42) on free throws, while Poole is at 76.9 percent (20-for-26), Abdur-Rahkman is at 85.2 percent (46-for-54), and Robinson is at 92.3 percent (24-for-26).
Abdur-Rahkman said Monday’s win had an added significance considering how last season’s meeting ended, with Northwestern winning on a last-second layup off a full-court inbounds pass.
“That was definitely on our mind,” he said. “Those games are tough when you lose a game like that, so we wanted to come in and make sure it wasn’t like that.”
The final play became a viral hit and the dramatic win secured Northwestern’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. The Wildcats’ historic season was chronicled by the Big Ten Network in a documentary titled “First Dance,” which was released last week.
“Nah, I didn’t watch it,” Abdur-Rahkman said with a laugh. “I still remember where I was at on the court, but it was just rough.”
… Northwestern redshirt junior forward Vic Law and Matthews used to play together at St. Rita High in Chicago.
On Monday, the two primarily guarded one another throughout the game. Matthews ended up getting the better of the matchup, finishing with 14 points (6-for-11 shooting) and seven rebounds while holding Law to six points (2-for-8 shooting) with three turnovers.
“Yeah, it was fun,” Matthews said. “It’s been a long time since I played with or against him. I wish him the best, wish his team the best but we won. I’m happy for that.”
… Freshman Eli Brooks was the first point guard off the bench over grad transfer Jaaron Simmons, who didn’t play after committing three turnovers in three minutes in the loss at Purdue. Brooks finished with a rebound, an assist and a missed free throw in five minutes after receiving a DNP the past two games.