UK Men's Basketball

Meet the Cats: Freshman Matthews potential defensive stopper for Kentucky

St. Rita's Charles Matthews brings the ball up court and is name the MVP OF THE GAME. Worsom Robinson/For Sun-Times Media.
St. Rita's Charles Matthews brings the ball up court and is name the MVP OF THE GAME. Worsom Robinson/For Sun-Times Media. Sun-Times Media

If you're wondering who will be Kentucky's defensive stopper this coming season, it would be wise to consider freshman Charles Matthews.

He has the size and mobility (6-foot-6, 189 pounds) to harass the opposition's perimeter scorers as well as hold his own closer to the basket. And, maybe more importantly, he seemed to warm to the idea of being assigned the role.

When a reporter likened him to DeAndre Liggins, another Chicagoan who transformed himself from celebrated recruit to defensive glue-guy, Matthews smiled.

"I feel I'm a great defensive player ... ," he said. "You know, you have to be even better on the defensive end than you are on the offensive end."

UK Coach John Calipari endorsed the idea of Matthews following Liggins' example of being an indispensable, if less celebrated, contributor. Liggins came to UK as the anointed point guard of the future. Under Calipari, he became the defensive stopper on the 2011 Final Four team.

"That's a pretty good comparison," Calipari said of Matthews-Liggins. "And DeAndre ended up being a pretty good scorer for us, too. But it took him time."

Liggins averaged 8.6 points and 31.6 minutes in the Final Four season.

The message: Matthews might need time to develop into a scorer, especially with Kentucky expected to be able to get points from many other players.

"Charles could be one of those finishers where we're all making plays and he's getting the ball in the basket," Calipari said. "His mid-range is not bad. His ability at the basket is good."

The UK coach summed up Matthews as "offensive rebounder and a defender and an energy guy." The chance for playing time will be determined by how reliably he finishes plays at the basket, rebounds and defends multiple positions.

Matthews averaged 22 points as a high school senior. ESPN rated him the No. 12 shooting guard in the class of 2015. listed him at No. 20.

"You won't see me just attacking the rim all the time," he said, "but you won't see me settling for jumpers either. I like to mix it up."

Matthews was the first player in the class of 2015 to commit to Kentucky. Then two things happened that dimmed Matthews' light.

■ UK added several other highly regarded prospects.

"It's great," Matthews said. "We get to compete, now. I get to train with them. I'm happy to have great guys around. I knew I couldn't do it by myself."

■ Nagging injuries led to a drop in the recruiting rankings (from five-star prospect to No. 50-to-60 range). "I don't make the rankings," he said. "I can't tell you why. I just focus on the now and try to improve as a player."

Matthews pronounced he's fully recovered from wrist, knee and ankle problems. "I was a pretty beat up guy in high school," he said. "I'm fine."

The Chicago-to-Kentucky basketball pipeline has been productive. Besides Liggins and Matthews, UK has gotten Anthony Davis and Tyler Ulis from the Windy City. Matthews and Ulis were teammates in the Nike EYBL Meanstreets program. Davis also played for Meanstreets.

"I never asked (Davis) about Kentucky," Matthews said. "I think it was kind of self-explanatory."

As to whether Calipari's track record influenced his decision to play for Kentucky, Matthews said, "It wasn't necessarily a factor. But you could still see the success that he had with Chicago players. And you think that could be me next.

"It's possible. Opportunities start running through your mind. But I'm thankful to be here. He's done great things not only with Chicago players, but players from all over. He's a great coach."