Journey to the Tourney: UK’s March Madness history
Sitting on a stationary bike, wearing a maize and blue practice jersey and surrounded by inquisitive Michigan-based reporters is not where Charles Matthews imagined he would be four years ago.
The high-profile recruit out of Chicago had a different, simpler vision for how his basketball career would play out.
“Go to Kentucky, win a national championship and keep it moving,” he said.
That’s not quite how things have worked out.
Matthews spent his Wednesday stretching out his recovering ankle on a bicycle, being peppered with questions from media and, primarily, preparing to lead No. 2-seed Michigan on another NCAA Tournament run starting, this time, in Des Moines.
The only senior on Michigan’s roster, Matthews is a 6-foot-6 do-it-all star and one of the top players in the Big Ten. His Wolverines face No. 15-seed Montana at about 9:20 p.m. EDT Thursday (TNT).
Matthews started his career in Lexington, but averaged just 10.4 minutes a game for the 2015-16 Wildcats team that lost to Indiana in the NCAA Tournament round of 32. So, Matthews decided it was time for a change and transferred to Michigan in search of a larger role. A starring one, even.
Matthews didn’t come to UK with a one-and-done mindset, necessarily, but still, his college career has not followed script.
“It was definitely, you had goals each and every year,” he said of coming to Kentucky. “I didn’t envision transferring, for sure. But things worked out for the better, and I’m happy for the route that I’ve taken.”
It’s been a route that didn’t seem likely after his time at UK. He averaged just 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds per game; in UK’s NCAA loss to the Hoosiers, Matthews played just one minute.
During his freshman season, Matthews had the look of a tweener. He certainly wasn’t a post player, but he wasn’t a prototypical guard, either. He shot 1-of-4 from the three-point line on the season, and was largely a forgettable piece of the Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis-led team.
Seventy-two starts, 2,200 minutes and 903 points later, he’s been anything but forgettable in the Big Ten.
“He’s a really good player,” said Michigan State guard Matt McQuaid, who faced Matthews five times over the past two seasons. “He’s got a really good mid-range game. He can step out and hit the three. He’s got a good handle. He’s got a good mid-range post play. He’s been a tough guard for us.”
Rather than the tweener status he had at UK, Matthews has become an all-around standout.
“On the court, he can do everything,” Michigan junior point guard Zavier Simpson said. “He can shoot, pass, he hustles, he plays both ends of the floor to the best of his ability.”
Just like last year, when Matthews was named the West Regional’s Most Outstanding Player and helped the Wolverines to the national championship game, he is again a versatile star for a strong team.
“Right now, it’s not so much about Kentucky. I’ve been gone from there forever. Now, it’s just trying to get back to the icing on the cake,” he said.
Last year, he led Michigan on a 14-game win streak that included a Big Ten Tournament title and a national title game appearance. Now, he wants more.
In his career, he’s won 61 games at Michigan, and he was reminded of that fact as he sat on the stationary bike.
“I’ve won 61?” he asked. “If I can win 67 games, that would be huge. I wanna win 67.”
Matthews harbors no ill-will toward Kentucky. He keeps in touch with his old teammates and called them “friends for life.” He said he’s kept a good relationship with the coaching staff, too.
But he’s pleased where he is: playing 31.2 minutes and scoring 12.0 points per game for a national title contender, albeit a blue-and-maize one, not blue-and-white.
“I went to two incredible institutions. I’ve gotten a lot from both of them, and I’m happy to be where I’m at,” he said.
In the locker room on Wednesday, a teammate approached Matthews with what he described as an extremely important question: if Matthews could be any fruit, what would he be?
“Star fruit,” was the former Kentucky reserve’s answer. Why?
“C’mon, man. Self-explanatory.”