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Reviewing Juwan Howard’s first season in Ann Arbor

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The Wolverines’ 2019-20 campaign will remain forever unfinished, but there’s still plenty to evaluate.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

First, a disclaimer: in a normal year there’s a good chance Michigan would still be playing basketball right now.

Second, another disclaimer: this isn’t a normal year.

The Wolverines’ season is over at 19-12. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out their entire postseason; the three or five or however many games that would define their season more than any of the 31 that came before.

The 2019-20 season will always be frozen in time. Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske will always exist in a state of suspended animation, forever preparing to put one final stamp on their Michigan legacies. Michigan and Rutgers will still be on opposite sides of the court waiting to tip off in Indianapolis. Instead, whatever might have happened in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament and beyond will remain confined to our imagination.

That’s not the point of this article. This is about a wildly transformative year for Michigan men’s basketball. This is about Juwan Howard’s first year in charge after replacing the greatest coach in program history, and the roller coaster ride that this first year was.

In light of the unprecedented events of the past week, it’s probably reasonable to render a less definitive verdict as one would otherwise. But we can still discuss what happened this season, why it happened and what it all means.

What we thought

Here, it’s worth revisiting some predictions about how this season would go.

At ESPN, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway both pegged Michigan to finish fifth in the Big Ten, while Myron Medcalf had it sixth. That was also where both Sports Illustrated and BT Powerhouse slotted the Wolverines. Orion Sang, Jeff Seidel, Shawn Windsor and Rainer Sabin of the Detroit Free Press all predicted an NCAA Tournament bid, and that a finish in the top half of the Big Ten was well within reach.

The Detroit News’ James Hawkins wrote: “18-20 wins and a .500 record in the Big Ten should be enough for Michigan to land in the Nos. 8-10 seed range with a winnable opening-round game but not much else.” And in this corner of the internet, the consensus was that an NCAA Tournament bid would make Howard’s first season a success.

All in all (apart from the whole thing about March Madness being cancelled), a 19-12 overall record, 10-10 Big Ten record and eighth-place conference finish is pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the range of outcomes presented back in the preseason. Basically, the Wolverines had the year we all expected.

But while it was going on, it never really seemed that way.

Michigan looked like it would cruise in its buy-game opener, taking a 67-37 lead over Appalachian State, and then gave up a 30-4 run before holding on to win. And that was more or less the story of the 2019-20 Wolverines.

They beat Creighton before anybody knew how good Creighton was. They beat North Carolina before anybody knew how bad North Carolina was. They beat Iowa State when the Cyclones still had Tyrese Haliburton. They were one of just two teams to beat Gonzaga all year. They were 7-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation after winning the Battle for Atlantis. Expectations were rapidly recalibrated.

Michigan dropped three games in December, all more than forgivable — at Louisville, at Illinois and at home in overtime against Oregon. So the Wolverines maybe weren’t elite, but no one would call Howard’s first two months anything other than wildly successful.

Then Isaiah Livers got hurt.

Without its leading scorer, Michigan dropped four of five and slumped to the bottom of the Big Ten. An Ayo Dosunmu buzzer-beater on Jan. 25 represented the low point of its season — it was 11-8, 2-6 in the Big Ten, and facing an uncertain road ahead after Livers reinjured himself attempting to return against the Illini. The Wolverines had gone from the top five to possibly the wrong side of the bubble.

Wins over Nebraska and Rutgers righted the ship somewhat, but it was a 77-68 win over Michigan State on Feb. 8 (and Livers’ second return) that really turned things around. Not only did Michigan snap a four-game losing streak against the Spartans, winning a game it still sorely needed, it won its next four games as well, effectively punching its ticket to the Big Dance in the process.

The Wolverines didn’t have the ending to the regular season they wanted, losing three of their last four games. But when the dust settled on a chaotic Big Ten season, Michigan was right where it was projected to be all along.

What went right

Michigan finished the season a No. 6 seed in Bracket Matrix’s composite. It’s a good bet that had Livers been healthy, the Wolverines would have been a fair bit higher.

In the 21 games that he played, the 6-foot-7 forward emphatically answered any questions (and these were valid questions) about whether he could be a leading man. Mostly limited to a catch-and-shoot player his first two seasons, Livers led the team with 12.9 points per game on an efficient 59.0 true shooting percentage. His offensive rating of 117.2 also led the team.

By and large, Michigan adapted seamlessly to a completely new offensive system. Beilein ball is methodical, steady, precise. Howard unleashed the Wolverines and let them run. They ranked 150th in the nation in adjusted tempo, while they hovered around the 300 range or lower under Beilein.

Amazingly, this acceleration didn’t come at the price of sloppy ball control. Michigan was a top-five team in the nation at avoiding turnovers the last three years. This year, it was … 11th, with a turnover rate of 15.3.

The Wolverines have Simpson to thank for that. More in control of the team, and the offense, than ever, the senior averaged 12.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game. His assist rate of 43.4 — meaning nearly half of Michigan’s buckets when Simpson was on the court were off of his passes — ranked fifth in the country. He set up great looks for others while also showing off a quicker, improved 3-point stroke, hitting 31-of 86 from that range, and his improbable hook shot remained unblockable.

After missing the first four games due to an injury and a subsequent slow start, Franz Wagner took enormous strides over the course of the year. The freshman wing averaged 13.0 points and 6.2 rebounds in conference play, and boosted it to 15.9 over the last seven games while also improving his defense. He’s the most skilled player on Michigan’s roster, at 6’8, 205 pounds with the ability to slash, shoot and play in transition. Wagner is the prototypical two-way wing for this day and age, and should he return as a sophomore, might be one of the best players in the Big Ten.

Last season, the Wolverines’ freshmen outside of Iggy Brazdeikis mostly contributed in spurts. Brandon Johns couldn’t establish himself while being forced to play out of position. David DeJulius was still learning the ropes. But both took leaps of some degree as sophomores, meaning Michigan was a much deeper team than it was last year. Johns looked at home as a versatile, athletic ‘4’, showing off skill we didn’t get the chance to see last year. DeJulius averaged 7.0 points in 20.9 minutes off the bench, flashing a deadly floater game and a capable outside shot.

We can’t not talk about Austin Davis. Big Country shot 69 percent from the field and led the Wolverines in points per 40 minutes with 18.2 (discounting Cole Bajema, who played 37 minutes all year). He was right at home in Howard’s offense, which got him post-up touches and easy looks at the rim, and in spurts, Davis’ arsenal of post moves made him perhaps the tallest microwave in the country. The announcement that he would have a roster spot next year was fully deserved.

Rounding out Michigan’s rotation, Jon Teske boosted his scoring to 11.6 points per game and took advantage of plenty of smaller bigs, while Eli Brooks found the confidence that had been lacking for much of his first two years. Brooks averaged 10.6 points per game, starting all but one game at shooting guard, and was one of the team’s best off-ball defenders.

What didn’t exactly go right

At first, it seemed like Livers’ absence was the biggest issue. It turns out the Wolverines just couldn’t shoot.

Could Michigan have really, really used Livers in losses to Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State in January? Absolutely. But by season’s end, the Wolverines, now with a healthy Livers, were the second-worst 3-point shooting team in Big Ten play, hitting just 30.6 percent from outside. Having a 40 percent shooter back in the lineup provided needed spacing, but instead of contested shots not falling, open shots weren’t falling.

This was, for the most part, a team-wide phenomenon. As evidence: if I asked you in November who Michigan’s two top 3-point shooters in Big Ten play would be, who would you choose? I can guarantee you wouldn’t choose Johns and Simpson. But Johns hit 38 percent, while Simpson went 34 percent from deep. Livers, Brooks, Wagner, DeJulius and Teske were all below 31.4 percent.

It was a weird season for Teske. On one hand, he boosted his counting stats significantly, but the marriage of him and Howard’s emphasis on post play didn’t quite have the desired effect.

While he was much maligned during a five-game stretch in February in which he went 10-for-39 from the field, it’d be unfair to say he regressed during his senior season. There’s always been a fundamental misunderstanding of Teske, certainly on a national level and also present in some corners of the Wolverines’ fan base, that his 7’1, 260-pound body tended to obscure. At his best, Teske wasn’t a paint-bound bulldozer ala Isaac Haas. He dove the lane and smoothly finished pick-and-rolls. He hedged hard on ball screens with far more agility than he had any right to have. He could step out once in a while and make you pay from outside.

These attributes made him a perfect ‘5’ under Beilein, but not so much under Howard. The Wolverines routinely started off games by getting Teske touches with his back to the basket, but against better and better opponents, all it did was expose a limited post game that consisted almost entirely of a right-handed jump hook.

Teske was also the center of Howard’s defense, which really wasn’t that much of a change from the Beilein era. Like they did last year, the Wolverines took away the 3-point line (just 29 percent of opponents’ shots came from outside, the best figure in the country), didn’t foul too much and forced opponents to win battles one-on-one to score. In an era of basketball where efficiency is more important than ever, it’s hard to disagree with what Michigan wanted to do.

But matchups matter too. The Big Ten was home to some of the best big men in the country this year: Luka Garza, Daniel Oturu, Trevion Williams, Xavier Tillman and Kofi Cockburn, to name a few. Howard refused to double any of them, instead taking his chances with letting them go to work against Teske. Garza averaged 38.5 points in two meetings with Michigan. Oturu went for 30 on 13-of-18 shooting. Williams exploded for 36 points on Jan. 9. Even an excellent post defender like Teske couldn’t always survive being put on an island.

That being said, the numbers look worse than the actual impact of them was. The Wolverines finished 28th in the country in defensive efficiency, and Teske put up a defensive rating of 93.4 — the best figure on the team. Perhaps the timing of the aforementioned performances, with Livers out and Michigan in a tailspin, caused more panic than was due. But a willingness to send the occasional change up on defense, whether that be to the Wolverines’ preferred drop ball-screen coverage or its strict avoidance of doubling, might have made for a less steep drop-off from last year’s second-best-in-the-nation defense.

What it all means

It’s not all that easy for a first-time college coach to take over from one of the smartest minds in basketball and a future Hall of Famer and put his stamp on the program in Year One. But that’s pretty much precisely what Juwan Howard did.

The Wolverines were different, in terms of playing style, on the court. They were different off of it, as evidenced by Howard’s (successful) pursuit of some of the best high school players in the nation: Isaiah Todd, Hunter Dickinson, Terrance Williams and maybe even Joshua Christopher and/or Greg Brown.

Michigan should be on the semi-short list of national title contenders next season. That’s a credit to its best recruiting class since the one Howard himself was a part of, but it’s also a credit to what he was able to do with the Wolverines this season.

The Wolverines’ veteran focal points — Simpson, Livers, Teske — played, for the most part, like veterans and focal points should. Young players took steps forward. Unheralded veterans took steps forward.

This isn’t to say they didn’t leave things on the table — it wasn’t a perfect season by any means. But it was never going to be.

Whatever Michigan would have done in the postseason would have almost certainly been 2019-20’s lasting memory, but it doesn’t invalidate its body of work during the regular season. The Wolverines played at the level they were expected to, and at times higher, while also hinting at what could lie ahead.

Howard’s first season won’t have any concrete markers of success attached to it. But it’s clear to see that what he’s doing is working.