Chicago — This is just the dress rehearsal. The curtain won’t go up on the final production for another week.
But Michigan coach John Beilein has seen enough of what the understudies can do. Eager as they are to make a good impression, they’re still fumbling over their lines at times.
It’s against that backdrop that the Wolverines await the return of one of their leading men. Charles Matthews, the lone fourth-year player on Michigan’s roster, has missed the last three games with an ankle injury he suffered early in a Feb. 24 loss to Michigan State.
His absence has been felt, particularly on the defensive end, where Michigan played three of its six worst games, per Synergy Sports stats, between the two Michigan State losses and the win at Maryland.
That’s one reason the mention of the Big Ten coaches’ all-defensive team voting brings a wry smile to Beilein’s face. Zavier Simpson made the first-team cut this year, after getting snubbed a year ago. Matthews did not, however.
“Yeah, that was surprising,” Beilein said. “People are watching a different game than I’m watching, obviously, with Charles. I mean, he’s had some rough offensive moments, but the guy has never had a bad defensive game.”
That his team did again Saturday at Breslin Center, coming unraveled in the second half of that 75-63 loss to the Spartans, was no coincidence, either.
Monday’s film session “was not good,” according to Beilein. And unsolicited, he’ll tell you he and his staff found 30 points “we could’ve controlled in that game just by different decision-making,” much of that coming on defensive miscommunication or late switches or poor close-outs.
“I haven’t spoken a lot about the loss of Charles — and everybody has losses during the season — but what they did to us with backside action, Charles is the best in the league, I think, at pushing people around to get them in the right position,” Beilein added. “And he was not there to do that.”
Will he be tonight when Michigan finally tips off in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals at the United Center?
Beilein sounded encouraged on that front Monday, saying, “He’s going to be ready to play.” Matthews practiced again Tuesday “and looked pretty good, actually,” according to center Jon Teske. But how much Michigan’s co-captain will play here in Chicago was still up in the air as the Wolverines departed Ann Arbor on Thursday.
Whether Matthews starts or not will depend on more than just how the ankle is feeling after a couple more days of practice.
“Who are we playing? And how do they play? What’s the matchup like?” Beilein said. “We’ve still gotta go through all that.”
It’s a similar task Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is facing with the expected return of Nick Ward, though in that case the absence was longer and the alternative has been better, in some respects.
What the Spartans missed with Ward’s interior scoring and rim-running transition game, they’ve made up for with a heavier emphasis on Cassius Winston’s ball-screen wizardry and Xavier Tillman’s defense. The latter’s ability to switch effectively against Michigan’s ball-screen actions was a huge reason the Spartans were able to secure the Big Ten regular-season title.
So Izzo and his staff set about “reinventing the wheel again” this week, trying to figure out the best way to work Ward back into the rotation without slowing the Spartans’ roll.
“I think there’ll be some frustrating moments for Nick, probably for us, but I think this is gonna be way more positive than negative,” insisted Izzo, whose team went 4-1 without its second-leading scorer. “And if we can play some games in this tournament, that helps him for the next tournament.”
Same goes for Michigan and Matthews here in Chicago, where the Wolverines are looking to become the first program to win three consecutive Big Ten tourney titles.
The redshirt junior isn’t the most efficient offensive player, but he’s Michigan’s most athletic wing, and he can create his own shot when things bog down, as they inevitably do. And as Beilein notes, “This dude was All-tournament team in the West Regional last year.” So he’s been here and done some of that in the postseason.
And what the Wolverines gain with Isaiah Livers in the starting lineup alongside Ignas Brazdeikis — Livers’ 3-point shooting spreads the floor better — clearly isn’t enough to offset Matthews’ loss at the other end, which is where this Michigan team hangs its hat.
“It’s just a different feel when he’s not in there, with his presence and how active he is,” Teske said. “He can anticipate what’s going on before the play really happens. He’s on the ball, he’s off the ball. So he always knows what’s going on and he has such a high IQ for the game that, I mean, he’s gonna sniff out plays before they even run them.”
And that’s where Beilein misses him most, whether it’s going over the daily cut-ups in the film room or directing his cast on the court. On a team that ranks 350th nationally (out of 354 Division I teams) in bench usage, and one that already is relying on a trio of first-year starters, having another player who knows his way around this postseason stage is invaluable.
“Even if he just gives us minutes and we can stay a little bit more veteran,” Beilein said. “He’s had that big experience. And we do need that leadership.”