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With the nation’s top class in hand, Juwan Howard’s recruiting strategy comes into focus

Howard built his 2021 recruiting class from the ground up — a notable evolution from his 2020 approach.

Purdue v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Nearly seven months ago, Juwan Howard was on the brink of securing one of the best recruiting classes in Michigan men’s basketball history.

But in mid-April, a potentially star-studded group lost its two anticipated headliners in the 11th hour. Josh Christopher spurned the Wolverines for Arizona State and, shortly after, Isaiah Todd decommitted from Michigan in favor of the NBA’s G League path.

Even without Christopher and Todd, Howard was left with a solid group. The Wolverines’ four-man 2020 recruiting class arrived in Ann Arbor ranked No. 15 nationally — the program’s second-best class since 2013.

What stood out most, though, was the lack of a five-star recruit. After Howard’s hiring in May 2019, he was at a disadvantage. Most 2020 prospects had already been courted by coaches for multiple years, leaving Howard with significant ground to make up. He worked hard to put the Wolverines squarely in the mix for top prospects like Christopher, Todd, Greg Brown, Walker Kessler and Nimari Burnett, but came away empty-handed each time.

By casting a wide net in search of five-star recruits, it seemed as though the building blocks of the class took a backseat at the outset. Hunter Dickinson joined the fold in December, while Terrance Williams and Jace Howard committed in January, well after the pursuit of most five-star targets had ended.

Howard’s approach to the class of 2021, however, was the opposite. The COVID-19 pandemic gave him an opportunity to restructure his recruiting strategy, and it showed.

“Our staff, we didn’t make any excuses,” Howard said during a Zoom call with reporters Monday. “We had to figure it out as well and see what the best way was to go out there and recruit. I’m just proud to have a great staff that embraces working hard, not making excuses for ourselves and doing whatever we can despite what we’re dealing with as a country, and finding the best way of taking advantage of this opportunity.

“I’ve always lived by this slogan, ‘Embrace the suck.’ Why sit back and be upset with the fact that we can’t have recruits on campus and show them the Michigan experience. Well, let’s take the Michigan experience to them.”

Howard built his 2021 class from the ground up, beginning with multi-year pieces Isaiah Barnes, Will Tschetter, Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins. Having a solid foundation in place minimized the blow of missing out on big fish such as Jalen Warley and Harrison Ingram. Building the class from the top down — as Michigan tried to do in 2020 — wouldn’t have afforded that type of luxury.

The biggest difference from last year? The Wolverines’ 2021 class wasn’t built around the top recruits — rather, the top recruits were built around the existing class. That gave Howard and his staff the leeway to take some big swings on remaining top prospects. The results speak for themselves. In the last two weeks, Michigan has landed five-star recruits Caleb Houstan (No. 9) and Moussa Diabate (No. 20) — two of the program’s three highest-rated commitments in the modern recruiting era, per 247Sports.

And now, seven months after the Christopher and Todd debacle, the Wolverines boast the nation’s top-ranked 2021 recruiting class. Given how quickly Howard is evolving as a recruiter, it could be the first of many.

“We try to go after guys that we feel fit our culture,” Howard said. “And fortunately enough, last year’s class and now this upcoming class in 2021, these guys want to be here at Michigan, we want them here, we’re looking forward to building something special — a winning, competitive group.”