Niyo: Charles Matthews still learning Michigan's balancing act

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Wichita, Kan. — You go to college to get an education. You go to Michigan for something else, though, at least if you’re on a basketball scholarship.

It’s a re-education, for everyone in John Beilein’s program. And when you ask junior Charles Matthews about that learning curve, about what it’s like for a once-coveted recruit out of Chicago — a guy who started his collegiate career at Kentucky, no less — to be asked to forget much of what he already knows, well, first you get a laugh.

Then you get that look, the one that lets you know it’d take hours to give you a full accounting. Eventually, you get a story or two about all those moments when practice comes to a screeching halt — “And you’re like, ‘Huh? What?’” Matthews laughs — and someone gets sent to run the stairs inside Crisler Center.

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“You’re basically just reprogramming yourself as far as basketball,” he explained with a wry smile. “The pivoting. How you catch the ball. How you pass the ball. You feel like you’re in third grade again when you first get here. But that just shows you how important the fundamentals really are.”

And that really does explain how a player like Matthews can go careening from one extreme to another over the course of his first season of eligibility at Michigan. Or even over the course of a few weeks, from a scoreless night at Penn State at the end of the regular season to a 20-point, 11-rebound rescue effort in Wolverines’ NCAA tournament opener Thursday night.

A performance that had Montana coach Travis DeCuire calling him “the difference in the game” immediately afterward, and Matthews’ own teammates singing his praises likewise before Friday’s practice.

“The energy he brought yesterday was big for us,” senior co-captain Duncan Robinson said. “He’s done it many times this year, but it’s a really good sign to start off this tournament, to have him have a performance like that.”

It’s also a sign of how far Matthews, Michigan’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, has come since arriving in Ann Arbor barely 20 months ago, leaving Kentucky after his freshman season to find a better fit and, ideally, more playing time.

Good to sit out a year

First, though, he had to sit out a year, which everyone agrees was a good thing.

Because as Jon Sanderson, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, notes, at 6-foot-6 and 178 pounds, “you can’t play at this level,” even if you’re a dynamic athlete like Matthews with a 81-inch wingspan and a 42-inch vertical leap.

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But also because a redshirt year allowed Matthews to understand just how much he had to learn — or re-learn — to play for Beilein, who doesn’t just preach about the fundamentals, he proselytizes. All those bad habits Matthews didn’t even know he had? Well, he knows about them now.

“And once you really see how everything flows, how everything is connected, you really start to understand and you become more appreciative of him teaching you,” Matthews said.

“But at first, I’m like, ‘I’m just gonna shoot the ball at the rim, man. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

Same goes for some of Sanderson’s methodology in the weight room, where Matthews added 20 pounds in his first year on campus, and where much of the upcoming summer’s work already is planned, focusing on eccentric strength instead of concentric strength. Matthews has no trouble exploding above the rim, but what goes up often has trouble coming down with proper balance.

And Matthews has some of the same issues as ex-Wolverine D.J. Wilson, a first-round NBA pick last summer “who was a very poor decelerator,” Sanderson said. “Guys like that have great engines but bad brakes.”

So in addition to trying to add another 10 pounds of muscle this summer, Matthews also will spend time working out with weighted vests and medicine balls, practicing some of those same fundamentals of landing on two feet and pivoting. So next year he doesn’t have to hear Beilein talking about how he looks, at times, like “Bambi on ice.”

Turnovers can be issue

That explains some of the follies on the floor, too, where one of Matthews’ strengths — attacking the basket offensively — can get lost in a mess of turnovers. Even Thursday night, Matthews committed five of them, including a travel call on an awkward pivot.

Still, he remains a pivotal piece for the Wolverines if they’re to advance in this tournament, starting with today’s second-round matchup with sixth-seeded Houston.

Matthews insists he came into the season with no expectations, but after a strong preseason, he looked to be a focal point early for Michigan.

Problem was, high-usage games for him didn’t necessarily translate to success, whether it was an early loss to LSU in the Maui Invitational or a 20-point drubbing at Nebraska. And while Matthews struggled to figure out Beilein’s complex offense — it’s a huge leap from the scout team to the starting lineup — the coaches also had a hard time finding his role.

“Obviously, he had some lulls,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said. “But he never just completely tanked it and got in a really bad funk that he couldn’t pull himself out of.”

Credit his own maturation process for much of that. Yet some of it, too, has been a fast friendship with Jaaron Simmons, the graduate transfer from Ohio who came in thinking he’d be the starting point guard but instead has settled for a supporting role off the bench.

“We were going through those growing pains together,” Matthews said.

And to their credit, Washington says, neither player let the inevitable frustration and disappointment spill over, “because their main goal was about the success of the team.”

“You can’t really get into those thoughts during the season, because that’s when you become so self-centered and don’t focus on the team,” said Matthews, who also dealt with the death of his grandmother in mid-December. “You’ve got to put your own personal interests to the back and not think about things. …

“You have to know what you’re playing for. I’m not playing to impress others. I’m playing for the joy of the game and I’m playing to win. So as long as we’re winning, I’m fine with that.”


Michigan vs. Houston

Tip-off: 9:40 p.m. Saturday, INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita, Kan.

TV/radio: TBS/950 AM

Records: No. 3 seed Michigan is 29-7, No. 6 seed Houston is 27-7

Next up: Winner advances to Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.