Michigan's Moritz Wagner, Zavier Simpson, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson discuss their NCAA Tournament run and Monday's title game against Villanova. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
San Antonio — They weren’t supposed to be here, not by any reasonable measure. Not the one-time, big-time recruit who transferred in to rebuild his game, not the other transfer from a tiny school, not the unheralded recruit who arrived as a veritable afterthought.
Michigan wasn’t supposed to be here, playing Villanova for the national championship, not logically. And of course, the Wolverines aren’t predicted to win tonight, a seven-point underdog against the top-seeded Wildcats, the biggest point spread in the title game since 2010.
The Wolverines’ long-shot status shouldn’t be a surprise because this is a team of long shots (and long-shooters), and improbable journeys. They were unranked in the preseason, picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten. Villanova still has six players from its national championship team of two years ago, including National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, and shoots 3-pointers at a record clip.
The differences are as stark as the team’s strengths — Michigan’s stifling defense against Villanova’s dynamic offense, called the college version of the Golden State Warriors. They’re as stark as the coaches, from Villanova’s renowned Jay Wright to Michigan’s understated John Beilein.
But as we’ve learned, labels and perceptions can be misleading. Junior guard Charles Matthews has spent two years rewriting his personal label, from a star Chicago recruit in a celebrated class at Kentucky, to an uncertain role in Michigan’s less-starry system. Matthews politely declines to discuss any further why he left Kentucky after one disappointing season, but has said he was looking for a place to grow his game, and it’s growing like crazy now.
After an up-and-down regular season, Matthews has become Michigan’s most dependable scorer in the NCAA Tournament, leading the team with a 16.6 scoring average while playing smothering defense. He’ll be a focal point again Monday, asked to help slow another star, Mikal Bridges, in a Villanova offense that’s No. 1 nationally in numerous categories.
“We don’t really care what they are, we just know they’re clearly in our way to win the title, so we gotta guard them to win, and that’s what we’re gonna do,” Matthews said. “It’s really crazy for us to make it this far, but we want to seal the deal. I don’t feel like we want to run 99 yards not to get the touchdown. We want to win it all.”
Matthews talks softly, but impactfully, and his improbable journey perfectly mirrors Michigan’s. In many ways, Matthews was one of the first to think this was possible, showing uncommon faith in a team that showed renewed faith in him.
Players say Matthews was the first to verbally ramp up the team’s goals, way back in the summer, when he said they should switch their huddle breakdown to “One, two, three — national champs!” Point guard Zavier Simpson agreed, and whether others believed it or not, they kept saying it until it becomes believable.
After the Wolverines swept through the Big Ten tournament and became a No. 3 NCAA seed, and after Jordan Poole hit the miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Houston 64-63 in the Sweet 16, it became eminently achievable. The phrase “belief system” may get overused in sports, but it’s applicable here.
It’s reflected in a major recruit like Matthews and in a minor recruit like Duncan Robinson, who transferred three years ago from Division III Williams College in rural Massachusetts. From completely opposite directions, the journeys arrived at the same place, and Robinson has his own unique standing now — the only player ever to participate in the Division I and III Final Fours.
“For lack of a better word, it’s incredible,” Robinson said. “This run we’re on now, it’s hard to really look at it with some perspective.”
Coach John Beilein sees similarities between Villanova and Loyola, and shares his philosophy on the athletic training and development of recruits. "You're not amassing talent, you're building a team."
You hear similar words from guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who arrived in 2014 as an unknown two-star recruit, hastily added because Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III left early for the NBA. Now Abdur-Rahkman is a smart, steady, invaluable player, and along with Simpson, forms a fierce defensive backcourt
On and on the stories go. Simpson was prone to turnovers and wasn’t an adept shooter, so he began the season on the bench, and didn’t start until January. Poole was on the scout team early, slow to crack Michigan’s rotation. Robinson was replaced in the lineup by freshman Isaiah Livers, and has found his role as a 6-8 shooting weapon off the bench.
But of all the disparate pieces, none have Matthews’ talent, and you see more and more what made him a member of a fabled Kentucky class. At 6-6, he can slice to the basket, and has improved his shooting. The flaws haven’t completely disappeared — free-throw shooting remains an issue for him and others — but that’s kind of the point. If not for the flaws, he might not have worked so hard to improve and fit.
Beilein says he’s not “amassing talent, but trying to build a team,” and so he has, piece by piece. Along with the assistants, they pushed Matthews to put his fundamental game back together, and more than once sent him running to section 212 at the top of the Crisler Center, punishment for turning the ball over in practice.
“I think there were moments this year when he probably questioned himself whether he could do some things,” Beilein said. “And as time has gone on, this young man has bought into it. I mean, it’s incredible what a calming influence he is, and what a great example he is for the Jordan Pooles and Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks, who are looking at him saying: I was highly recruited too, and look how he’s bought in like he’s Duncan Robinson.”
After sitting out his transfer season, Matthews has become a premier defender, and increasingly, his aggressiveness shows on the other end. While Moe Wagner was dominating with 24 points and 15 rebounds in the Final Four victory over Loyola-Chicago, Matthews kept them in it too, finishing with 17 points.
He speaks with the weight of hard-earned wisdom. When he struggled, and the team struggled, he fought through it.
“I wasn’t playing selfish, but I was kind of forcing a lot of stuff, trying to figure out how to stay aggressive but still play the Michigan style of basketball,” Matthews said. “I never doubted it was going to work. I came here with my back-against-the-wall mentality, so even when stuff wasn’t going my way, I was gonna figure out how to make it work.”
He does it more demonstratively now. When the Wolverines trailed Loyola-Chicago by seven at halftime, Matthews shouted to teammates, “We’re not losing this game!” He yelled it again as the Wolverine rallied, and you could see him pound the chest of assistant coach DeAndre Haynes to hammer the point.
Matthews has been hammering it since those summer workouts, and didn’t care who heard it. Maybe he believed it because he’d already done something more difficult — believed in himself.
“I don’t think we all believed it then, but I was just putting it in the air,” Matthews said. “It really started to kick in right after the Big Ten tournament. I remember being a kid watching these Final Fours, all the hoopla, and now it’s just like, we might as well win it, we didn’t come here for nothing.”
They got here by becoming something, somewhat out of nowhere, and when that happens, nothing seems improbable anymore.
Michigan vs. Villanova
Tip-off: 9:20 p.m. Monday, Alamodome, San Antonio
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 33-7; No. 1 seed Villanova 35-4
UM’s latest try
Michigan in the NCAA Tournament championship game:
1965: Lost to UCLA, 91-80
1976: Lost to Indiana, 86-68
1989: Defeated Seton Hall, 80-79
1992: Lost to Duke, 71-51
1993: Lost to UNC, 77-71
2013: Lost to Louisville, 82-76