2018 Runner-Up Michigan Wolverines Primed for Another Long March in 2019

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CHICAGO — Michigan wing Charles Matthews quickly interrupted a reporter chatting with his teammate Xavier Simpson at Big Ten media day. The 6-foot-6-inch, 205-pound Matthews wouldn’t let Simpson defame his reputation while seated at the same table.

“I won four games in Connect Four,” Matthews said. “He won two. I’ve beat him in the race game. He won none. I beat him in a shooting game. I made him quit [that]. Then, I beat him in the left hand ball toss. … I beat him in the left hand shooting contest.”

The two noted their high spirits stem from Wolverines coach John Beilein — with the exception of when last season’s national championship game enters the conversation.

In 2013, Beilein recalled needing roughly three months before rewatching their 82-76 loss to Louisville in the national title game. He’s yet to see the film from Michigan’s 17-point loss against Villanova on April 2. Unlike Beilein’s first go around, he quickly recognized his team wasn’t capable of pulling of the upset — largely because of then-Wildcats sophomore Donte DiVincenzo’s 31-point outburst.

“If I won a thousand dollars playing blackjack, it’d mean nothing,” Beilen said. “If I lose 50 [dollars], I’d hate it. … I’ll probably get a glass of wine and watch it [before Michigan and Villanova play again on Nov. 14].”

Entering his 11th campaign with the Wolverines — and 26th as a Div. I coach — Beilein admitted his group will likely undergo another slow start due to its inexperience. Nevertheless, Michigan is set to surge in March once again.

The Wolverines possessed a 19-7 record (8-5 Big Ten) in early February before reeling off 14 consecutive wins, including a Big Ten tournament championship. The year prior, a 19-8 mark (9-8) on March 1 quickly evaporated into seven straight victories and a Sweet 16 loss to Oregon.

Then-junior forward Moe Wagner (14.6 ppg) departed for the NBA draft following last season’s NCAA tournament run, along with guards Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (12.9 ppg) and Duncan Robinson (9.2 ppg) both graduating. Beilein emphasized the importance of relying on his sound defense early in the season — with the team’s inevitable offensive struggles.

“I see us getting picked second by people [in the preseason polls],” Beilein said. “I’m trying to figure out where that comes from. … We just gotta embrace this growth mindset again. They’re a great talent that has to learn how that transcends into winning.”

Michigan finished with the eighth-lowest scoring defense in the nation a campaign ago, yielding just 63.3 points per game. It also posted the third-best defensive efficiency, as opponents notched 0.90 points per possession. The Wolverines thrive off their stingy ball-hawks — led by Simpson and Matthews.

Although Wagner improved at that end of the floor over his three seasons, Simpson said the Wolverines’ frontcourt unit could be more lethal in the upcoming campaign, thanks to juniors Jon Teske and Austin Davis. The two should see expanded roles with Wagner out of the fold.

“It’s a different sort of chemistry [with Teske and Davis],” Simpson said. “Moe, he can provide a lot of things to the table [offensively]. A guy like John, Austin … they can play great defense.”

Simpson praised Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich, who serves as Beilein’s defensive coordinator, for charting unforeseen areas of how Michigan can progress. Advanced terminology, like defensive rebounding rate, is a part of his everyday conversations with the team.

Offensively, Matthews (13.0 ppg) — the Wolverines’ top returning scorer — and Simpson (7.3 ppg) both expressed confidence in their development during the offseason. Simpson aimed to refine the mechanics on his shot, hitting only 51.6 percent of his free throws last season. He worked over the summer with his father Quincy Simpson, who coached him at Lima Senior High School after Simpson transferred there as a junior.

Beilein said Matthews’ advancement has centered around fine-tuning his 1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, as well as his three-point stroke (31.8 percent). He credited sophomore Jordan Poole with the team’s best shooting touch thus far. Poole kept Michigan’s 2017-18 season alive with a buzzer-beating heave against Houston in the round of 32.

 “This last week was probably his (Poole’s) best week that he’s ever had at Michigan,” Beilein said. “He’s gotta shoot the ball well now. [I’ve said,] ‘Shoot that ball or you’re coming out.’ … We need him to hunt.”

The Wolverines were tied for the 176th-best scoring offense (73.6 ppg) a season ago, but even with five freshmen in the mix, they’re confident it’ll click in the most important moments.

“We just always took the approach of let’s just always get better each and every day,” Matthews said. “Whenever we hit that peak[, lookout]. Who knows when it’s going to come.”