CHICAGO — Michigan coach John Beilein welcomed Charles Matthews with open arms when he transferred from Kentucky after the 2015-16 season, but did not go easy on him.
There were tough days when Matthews admitted, “I gave him a lot of headaches, he gave me a lot of headaches.”
But Matthews, a senior captain who declared for the NBA Draft with one season of eligibility remaining, now considers new Cavaliers coach Beilein among college basketball’s elite.
“I feel he’s the most underrated college coach ever, I think he should be up there in the [conversation] with Coach K and Coach Cal and those guys,” Matthews said Thursday of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari. “I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do with the Cavs. It’s a fresh start with a fresh roster. I think it’s going to be good for him.
“Me and coach Beilein, I love that guy. I’m proud for him and I already know he’s going to make the most for that program.”
Three Michigan players attending the NBA Draft Combine said they were shocked Beilein left, even though Beilein had interviewed with the Detroit Pistons in 2018. Matthews and freshman Ignas Brazdeikis said when their phones blew up Monday morning, they thought they’d missed their flights to Chicago.
“I think everybody in America was surprised. I don’t care that he flirted with that idea last year, the timing of it caught you off guard,” Matthews said.
“I was definitely surprised,” Brazdeikis said. “I’m very happy for him, I think it’s the right move for him for sure. I took so much from him ... Just to slow down a little bit, keep the game simple and to make the easy play. That’s probably the biggest thing he’s taught me.
“He’s such a great guy, he’s so honest, I think wherever he goes he will be successful.”
Beilein said he made his decision Sunday after talks got serious over the weekend, and spent that night writing texts to each of his players.
“I wanted to be as individual as I could,” he said. “By an hour after the announcement, all of them had an individual text.”
Beilein, 66, gave a little more of an idea Thursday on why he took the Cavs job.
“It was never like a dream. It was always an option,” he said of the NBA. “I love coaching and when an opportunity came that you could do even more pure coaching, I thought long and hard about it. It was the right decision.”
Matthews’ career was a good example of the type of relationships Beilein builds with his players. Although Matthews said it took a village that included his family, his teammates and his coaches at St. Rita High School in Chicago to get him to this point, he called the role Beilein played in his life “huge.”
“[When] I walked into Michigan I was not understanding nothing that was going on at that university. It was a complete culture shock for me, completely different environment,” Matthews said. “Coach B continued to teach me, continued to be on me and it made me a better man.
“I spent a lot of time with coach Beilein one-on-one. He spent a lot of time singling me out in front of the group. When a coach can coach their best players like that and don’t hold anything back, that just brings the team camaraderie even closer. He really did a good job molding me and making sure I didn’t take any shortcuts. Coach Beilein always wanted me to be an overachiever. You have to appreciate that.”
Matthews and Brazdeikis, along with sophomore Jordan Poole, are early draft entrants who have until June 10 to decide whether to return to Michigan. Brazdeikis, who grew up in Oakville, Ontario, told the Detroit Free Press on Thursday that Beilein was the main reason he went to Michigan.
“He was brutally honest. He told me right away on my visit, ‘If you’re good enough, you’re going to play and if you’re not good enough, you’re going to sit on the bench,’ ” Brazdeikis told the Free Press. “I believed in my abilities and my confidence so much that with equal opportunity I’d make the most of that.
“I wouldn’t say 'father figure,' but he’s a great reason where I am. He told me to be humble, to make the right play, to do things the right way.”
Brazdeikis later told the Beacon Journal, “I think every single player he’s had he’s treated as family. I’m definitely grateful for everything he’s done for me.”
Matthews said how NBA players will take to Beilein is “everybody’s biggest question.”
“I think there’s going to have to be an adjustment on both sides,” Matthews said. “He’s coming into a new environment, and one of his biggest things is responding to sudden change. I think he’s going to understand he has to adapt.”
But it’s possible Cavs players will come to value the same things Matthews took from Beilein at Michigan.
“The way you prepare, the little details, that stuff matters. Everybody thinks it’s all about this offense you run, the defense you run,” Matthews said. “It’s the details you put in, that he puts in. It all starts at the top.
“He laid a foundation where we don’t take a shortcut. We do everything with diligence, we do it with integrity and honesty and we do it the right way and it all carries over.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.