James Hawkins and John Niyo of The Detroit News preview Thursday night's game between Michigan and Texas Tech at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Anaheim, Calif. — Texas Tech redshirt freshman guard Avery Benson knows how difficult it is to stop star teammate Jarrett Culver.
"You better be about 6-8 and just as athletic,” Benson said Wednesday. “It's hard to guard Jarrett Culver.”
Luckily for No. 2 seed Michigan it has someone who practically fits the bill: redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews.
In a meeting that will pit the nation’s top defenses against one another, the 6-6 Matthews vs. 6-6 Culver showdown will be the key matchup within Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup at the Honda Center.
And, simply put, it’s a matchup not many have won.
Culver, a sophomore guard, leads the No. 3 seed Texas Tech (28-6) in scoring (18.8 points), rebounding (6.5) and assists (3.8), and has scored double figures in all but one game. He was also named the Big 12 player of the year and is projected to be a lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft.
"He can score at all three levels,” assistant coach Luke Yaklich said. “He can get you an offensive rebound. He can score in the post. He can beat you off a ball screen with his pull-up jumper getting to rim. He can beat you off the ball screen by passing it out to open shooters. Then he can beat you off the ball screen by getting it to the rim to their bigs.
“He is as talented a player as we've played this year. He's got good size and length. He can see over the top in your ball screen defensive coverage. He's everywhere on the floor. Obviously, he's a focal point of what they do throughout the game and then in late clock, late game situations as well.”
Yaklich said Culver reminds him a little bit of Indiana freshman Romeo Langford due to his ability to get into the lane and get to the rim, but he’s more so a mixture of all the Big Ten wings who can shoot, pass, dribble and defend.
“He just puts a lot of pressure on you defensively to be entirely locked in each possession because their motion offense is really good,” Yaklich said. “They're constantly moving and if you let down a little bit, it's going to cost you.”
Texas Tech sophomore guard Parker Hicks knows that feeling all too well. Hicks said he has had his days when he’s been able to slow down Culver in practice and “then all of a sudden it’s back to reality.”
“If you're not there, he'll take the shot and if you're there then he's going to drive, make some move, some counter,” Hicks said. “He's just got so many things in his game that it's almost impossible to stop because if you cut off something he'll just go to the next thing.
"He's just different than everybody. He's not really that showtime athlete that everybody thinks of when you think of a player, but he's got so much in his bag that he's good at everything he does. People can't say, 'Make him go left,' because he can go left and still score. He can go right and still score. He's got so many options it's hard to stop.”
However, Matthews has been able to shut down nearly everyone who has crossed his path. In the two meetings against Indiana, he held Langford to 26 points and 8-for-23 shooting (1-for-4 on 3-pointers).
Matthews has had similar stifling success in the NCAA Tournament, limiting Florida’s Kevaughn Allen and Montana’s Michael Ougine to 11 points and 4-for-13 shooting (2-for-7 on 3-pointers).
“Anybody that is good, that's a great defender you want to be challenged,” Yaklich said. “Charles is an elite two-way player and he likes the challenge on the other side of the ball. Whether we're playing Iowa, Villanova, Purdue, whoever, Charles takes his matchup personally no matter who it is.
“Charles understands and prepares as best that he can each and every night, and I know he'll be excited for the challenge of starting out on Culver.”
That’s not something most people who are tasked to guard Culver would say. But then again, Matthews isn't like most defenders.
"What I've learned a lot during my time as I've matured as a coach here is sometimes there are great players and then there are great defenders, and when they match up, anything can happen,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We've got some other guys that if you need to switch onto him you can do some things, too, or give Charles a rest. But he's a really, really good player and Charles has faced really good players.
“Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. It should be a great battle between two good players.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN vs. NO. 3 TEXAS TECH
Tip-off: 9:39 p.m. Thursday, Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.
Records: Michigan 30-6; Texas Tech 28-6
Next up: Winner faces No. 1 Gonzaga or No. 4 Florida State in the Elite Eight.