Michigan basketball was hit with a double-whammy at the end of last season when they were bounced out of the tournament by Texas Tech in embarrassing fashion and then weeks later, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis, all left for the NBA.
Then, head coach John Beilein joined them and signed on to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That was a tough pill to swallow, and for many, it was a downer because it likely meant the end of an era for the Wolverines on the court coming off of the golden age of Michigan hoops.
They were right in feeling that way. Beilein, for what my money is worth, deserves a statue at Michigan right next to Bo Schembechler (and softball coach Carol Hutchins too, if we’re being honest). When you lose the best head coach in the history of the program out of nowhere and then a fair amount of NBA talent, a rebuild is on the way. Rebuilds are scary, especially when you’re not sure what the next regime is going to look like.
After it became apparent that it was not realistic for Michigan to just fire the money cannon at candidates like Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan, who were pipe dreams from the start, athletic director Warde Manuel got his coaching search underway. He was prepared for this after Beilein’s flirtations with the Detroit Pistons the offseason prior, and this search with all of its rumored names kept coming back to a familiar figure around these parts.
It was Juwan Howard.
Howard, who spent the last six seasons as an assistant with the Miami Heat under Erik Spoelstra, made the jump to the head coaching ranks by being hired by his alma mater almost 30 years after changing college basketball as a member of the Fab Five in the early 1990s.
From the day he was introduced at Michigan, Howard has stressed that this is going to be his program and he will not seek to copy or replicate the Beilein way of doing things, outside of winning at a high level and competing for Big Ten Championships and deep tournament runs. His passion for the university is palpable and moved him to tears during his intro to the world as the new leader of this basketball operation.
One thing is for sure, and that’s whether he succeeds or not, this man is going to pour every drop of his soul into building a winner in his image at Michigan.
Any time that you hire a first-time head coach, there are going to be questions about whether or not it is going to work. Even the greatest basketball minds and best leaders can sometimes struggle with pushing the right buttons in games and making adjustments. Howard cannot answer those questions about himself right now, but he has done just about everything right since being hired.
The first step was retaining a Beilein assistant in Saddi Washington to help serve as a bridge from one era to the next, and he’s more than qualified as a coach in his own right. He was reportedly considered for the position that Howard now holds.
Being that Howard has never coached at this level and run a program before, he went out and got the best mentor on the market in St. John’s legend Phil Martelli, who serves as his right hand man and a guidance voice in the form of someone who has been around this game for a long, long time. And then Howard plucked Howard Eisley out of the NBA as someone that can help attest to what Howard teaches in terms of what it takes to be a pro.
You combine that with keeping strength and conditioning maestro Jon Sanderson, who has been a godsend for the program and has been behind a lot of impressive physical transformations, and you’ve got yourself a heck of a good-looking basketball operation heading into year one.
The biggest question on people’s minds is how exactly will Howard differ from Beilein in his approach? We do not know much to this point, but there are already a few major changes.
Beilein was beloved by his players, but was more of a tactician with a system in place. Howard, at least early on, is being touted as a players’ coach who is more of a higher-energy presence. Players have said that the tempo is a bit higher than it has been before at Michigan and they have responded really well to that.
Howard is bringing a style of basketball to Michigan that more reflects where the NBA is going in terms of the positionless aspects of the game. That’s not to say that is a better or right way to do it, but it’s the way he wants to approach things.
As far as the recruiting trail goes, Beilein was stricter in the way that he offered players (you didn’t get an offer unless you visited campus and were seriously interested) and was not always looking for the four and five-star guys on the market. He found gems that he could mold and might take a few years, but that could pay off tremendously if they developed in his system.
Howard is taking a more wide open approach and wants the most talented players he can get, as evidenced by his work on the recruiting trail to land 2020 five-star Isaiah Todd with more potential elite talent on the way.
Again, there isn’t a right or wrong way to do this, but even Howard may admit the Midas touch that Beilein had with his player development might not be able to be replicated. You have to coach up the guys you have, but if the guys you bring in might already be close to ready to playing in the NBA, that makes your job a heck of a lot easier.
As far as what the outlook for this season is? If everything clicks with them and they are able to withstand the barrage of injuries early on (Brandon Johns has a sprained ankle that isn’t considered to be serious, Franz Wagner is out 4-6 weeks with a wrist fracture), this current team could peak somewhere around third or fourth in the Big Ten as an absolute best-case scenario. Worst case, they struggle to find a groove and wind up somewhere in that 8-9 range in the Big Ten and are on the outside looking in on the NCAA Tournament picture.
This year is all about setting a foundation. They still have as decent a big three as it gets in the Big Ten with Zavier Simpson, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske. However, they will be defined by the growth of guys like Wagner, Johns, Colin Castleton, David DeJulius, Eli Brooks and so on and so forth.
Outside of Simpson and Teske, and unless Livers makes the type of jump that leads to NBA Draft buzz, most of this team will be back for next season barring any attrition via transfers, which is always possible. If this group grows from start to finish and then in 2020-21 they start plugging some bonafide blue chip talent in there, this program could really start to get cooking.
Just about everything Howard has done so far leading up to his debut season has been terrific and should give hope that Wolverine basketball is more than just the Glen Rice, Fab Five and John Beilein eras of the program. It’s fair to be concerned about bringing in a #MichiganMan without any head coaching experience, but it is hard to imagine anyone they could have hired for the program doing a better job than this first few months under Howard.
Those who are patient will be rewarded. There are going to be some growing pains with both the players and the man in charge. However, everything we have seen so far in the lead up to this year should provide hope that Michigan hoops is here to stay.