Des Moines, Iowa — This is what they’d been waiting to see. No, not just another first-round NCAA Tournament dispatching of Montana in another late-night tune-up.
This is what the Wolverines craved to see — one of their best players looking like one of their best players again. Charles Matthews might not be fully recovered from an ankle injury suffered a month ago, but he’s getting tantalizingly close. Michigan got him going early and Matthews responded with a double-double — 22 points, 10 rebounds — in a 74-55 rout of Montana Thursday night.
It was a rematch of last year’s opener, and a mismatch of greater proportions. And earlier in the night, the Wolverines might have gotten a break, as No. 7 Nevada fell to No. 10 Florida 70-61, setting up a meeting with the 20-15 Gators. But the biggest thing to extract from a non-dramatic beating of a 15 seed is that Michigan is a different team with a healthier Matthews, and probably couldn’t make a long run without him.
So here he was, sliding down the baseline for slippery layups, stopping in the lane to pop his favorite turnaround jumper. And he donned his standard defensive cloak, holding Montana’s senior guard, Michael Oguine, to three points. Matthews’ running mate, Zavier Simpson, also clamped down, and the Wolverines’ defense had no trouble smothering the undersized Grizzlies.
More important, Matthews had less trouble shaking off the tentativeness that naturally develops with an injury. After twisting his right ankle in a loss to Michigan State Feb. 24, Matthews missed the last three regular-season games. He returned for the Big Ten tournament but struggled to get reacclimated, shooting 6-for-21 in three games. The difference now?
“I’m getting more healthy, simple as that,” he said. “I’m more comfortable now. The first few games I didn’t want to just come out and mess up the flow of the team. I wanted to get my feel back. It’s a different atmosphere when you’re able to feel like yourself a little bit."
Ready to march
It’s also that time of year. In the run to the national title game last season, Matthews was the Most Outstanding Player in the West Region, combining for 35 points in victories over Texas A&M and Florida State.
He said he’s not yet 100 percent, but as he improves, the timing is ideal.
“I guess in March, I kind of do my thing,” he said. “Just trying to keep it going.”
This was vital, and this was the right venue against an outmanned foe. Matthews shot 8-for-12, and as Michigan’s lead grew as high as 27 in the second half, he asked to stay in a bit longer to get more comfortable.
No problem on this night, as freshman Iggy Brazdeikis added 14 points in his Tournament debut. As much as Simpson sets the tone, Matthews emboldens the defense with his 6-foot-6 size and tenacity. It will be needed against a Florida team that also plays terrific defense.
“This is the Charles that we know, and when he’s at his best, we’re a really good team,” John Beilein said. “We’re gonna need him if we’re gonna make any type of run in this tournament. If we’re gonna beat Florida, we need all hands on deck.”
Matthews said the past few weeks were “stressful,” as he couldn’t contribute much in the home loss to Michigan State, then missed the next meeting in the Big Ten tournament. He kept watching tape, kept talking to teammates, and kept driving home the urgency of tournament play.
A soft-spoken guy who doesn’t like to draw attention, Matthews has become more vocal in the locker room, joining Simpson as unquestioned leaders. He had a few strong things to say after the Big Ten loss to Michigan State, and expressed a few more things leading up to the NCAA opener.
It’s a transformation you often see in seniors (although Matthews has one year of eligibility remaining), easy to detect in the unflinching tone of their words.
Do teammates listen?
“They got no choice,” said Matthews, who averages 12 points per game. “We understand one more mess-up, we’re done. I don’t want to end my season on that note, none of these guys do either. After getting to where we got last year, we’ll really just feel empty if we don’t take it all this year.”
It’s a long way from here to there, from the opener to the Final Four. The first step doesn’t necessarily foreshadow anything. But for Matthews, it was a step that looked much bigger than most.
NO. 2 MICHIGAN vs. NO. 10 FLORIDA
Tip-off: 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Records: Michigan 29-6; Florida 20-15
Next up: Winner faces No. 6 Buffalo, No. 11 Arizona State, No. 3 Texas Tech or No. 14 Northern Kentucky in the Sweet 16