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Charles Matthews: From one-and-done to the national championship game

Kentucky transfer has been the glue for Michigan during the NCAA tournament

SAN ANTONIO — Michigan guard Charles Matthews was intrigued by Loyola-Chicago’s shocking run to the Final Four, and why wouldn’t he? He reps “The Chi,” growing up on the South Side.

Naturally, he’s familiar with a few of the Rambler players, and he enjoyed the team’s run that helped portray his city in a positive light.

Enjoyed it until Saturday.

“It was great they had the season that they did, and I wish them the best in their future,” Matthews said. “I just felt it was time for us to end that run.”

It’ll be Michigan against Villanova for the national championship on Monday night. And Matthews has a big part in making that happen, scoring 17 points in helping end the Ramblers’ season in the 69-57 win.

Bye, Sister Jean, it’s been a tremendous journey.

And Matthews could tell you about a tremendous journey as well, but he’d rather not discuss it.

“I don’t really get involved with MY journey,” Matthews said. “This is the team’s journey, and I just want to help the team win.”

While Matthews won’t discuss his journey, it’s worth recapping the trip to the Final Four for the guy who was named the Most Outstanding Player in the West Region and who’s probably been Michigan’s most consistent player during the NCAA tournament.

Three years ago he arrived at Kentucky as one of the top prospects from the state of Illinois after a strong high school career at St. Rita of Cascia in Chicago. Like all of the freshmen who commit to John Calipari and Kentucky, Matthews — a versatile, 6-foot-6 guard — had dreams of being one-and-done.

And he was one-and-done, although it didn’t end with him being picked in the 2016 NBA draft like his fellow freshmen Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere and Tyler Ulis.

Matthews was one-and-done because he barely played (1.7 points per game while playing just over 10 minutes a game). Still, Calipari saw his potential and wanted him to stay. Matthews decided to bolt, seeking a school he felt would be a better fit.

The school that fit best was Michigan, where Matthews sat out last season. It was during that season on the sidelines when Matthews discovered that the status he had entering Michigan was far different from what he held entering Kentucky.

“Here’s a kid that was so highly recruited, and Michigan didn’t recruit him at all,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I had no knowledge of him until his high school coach called me after he had decided he was going to transfer.”

In other words, there would be no star treatment at Michigan (although that was probably solidified by his barely playing and scoring fewer than two points a game at Kentucky).

In Beilein, Matthews found a coach who didn’t hesitate to call him out.

“Last year all I used to hear in practice was ‘turnover Matthews, turnover Matthews.’ And go see 212,” which was the section at the top of the bleachers to which Matthews often had to run.

“I stayed with it; Coach stayed on me,” Matthews said. “He continued to believe in me.”

Here’s how much Beilein believed: Matthews was inconsistent toward the end of this season. He missed all five of his shots in a scoreless game at Penn State on Feb. 21, which concluded a three-game stretch where he hit 25.9 percent of his shots (7 of 27).

Yet Beilein stuck with Matthews, keeping him in the starting lineup at a time a change would have been justified.

While freshman Jordan Poole stills gets love for his game-winning shot in the second-round win over Houston and Moritz Wagner attracts the crowds with his dominant play in the middle (he had 24 points and 15 rebounds against an undersized Loyola team), it’s Matthews who has been the team’s glue since the NCAA tournament began.

“He was really struggling in January to understand what his role would be and what he should do,” Beilein said. “Now he’s got a pretty good, defined role.”

It’s a defined role that will surely catch the eye of NBA teams.

But that’s far from Matthews’ radar. Right now he’s focused on enjoying Michigan’s run to the championship game.

“There’s really no rush for me,” Matthews said. “Right now, I’m just trying to help my team win. And do whatever I can to get Coach B a national title.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.