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Michigan basketball’s culture comes into focus as title pursuit cranks up

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Juwan Howard’s early success is a reflection of the culture he’s built.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Across the college basketball landscape, some programs talk about culture. Others have it.

As the Michigan Wolverines continue winning, it’s become clear that Juwan Howard’s team falls into the latter category. They have steamrolled their way to a 17-1 overall mark and a 12-1 record in the Big Ten, which is the nation’s best conference from top to bottom since 2004 according to KenPom.

“We live by family being part of the culture, being all-in, accountability, sacrifice, discipline,” Howard said after a 79-57 drubbing of No. 9 Iowa on Thursday. “Those things have translated into the players and they accepted that. (Our success) is based on what the culture’s all about here at Michigan.”

Take a step back and look at the big picture. Just a year after signing a five-year extension that would’ve kept him in Ann Arbor until 2023, former coach John Beilein abruptly left for the NBA in May 2019. Howard came in and began his career with seven straight wins, but Michigan ultimately finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings last season.

The offseason wasn’t particularly kind to the Wolverines, who bid farewell to the program’s two all-time winningest players in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, lost three transfers and missed out on a pair of five-star 2020 recruits amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fast forward 10 months, and Michigan has established itself as one of the nation’s legitimate title contenders. The Wolverines weathered a 23-day COVID-related layoff to remain in the driver’s seat for an outright Big Ten regular-season crown. Back in January, Michigan became the first team in college basketball history to beat three-straight-ranked opponents by at least 19 points. The Wolverines are 6-1 against ranked opponents this season, and they’re one of three teams ranked in KenPom’s top 10 for both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.

So, what makes Michigan special? Ask senior guard Chaundee Brown, who spent the first three years of his career at a Wake Forest program careening toward the ACC’s rock bottom.

“Just the family. Everyone’s happy for each other’s success,” senior guard Chaundee Brown said after a win over No. 4 Ohio State on Sunday. “I know a lot of teams, it’s just a lot of jealousy, a lot of hating, guys not liking another person because they’re playing more minutes than them or taking their spot. Here, it’s just different. It’s just like a whole family. I’m really glad to be a part of a team like this, especially my senior year, so this is really special. Michigan basketball has a nice culture. I give a lot of credit to coach Howard (for) coming in and just changing things around, making us a fully loving team.”

Or take it from Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli, who’s spent the last four decades coaching college basketball.

“When (Howard) puts his core values up there — and they’ve been up there since last June — he lives those values and the players resonate with them,” Martelli said Wednesday. “It’s really the core values of the program, of family and trust and accountability, sacrifice. Those core values are every day, they’re brought up subtly to the players in every drill, every scouting report, every film study. So, it’s not a dictatorship. Everybody knows who’s in charge, but it’s clearly not dictatorial in any way, shape or form. And I think in the bottom line is that these players are respected, and therefore they respect the opportunity that they’ve been given.”

Perhaps the most insightful answer comes from senior captain Isaiah Livers, who spent the first two years of his career under Beilein’s tutelage before becoming a major piece of the bridge into the Howard era. Livers is averaging a career-high 14.4 points this season after withdrawing from last year’s NBA Draft, but that’s the last thing that matters to him.

“A lot of guys can find themselves getting selfish, looking at their stats after the game,” Livers said Thursday. “‘Oh, I didn’t get my shots. Oh, I’m not getting my plays, my usage.’ We don’t have that here, honestly, at Michigan basketball. We all just want to win. And we talk about when we all win, we all shine. That’s just how it works. I feel like everybody’s bought into the Michigan culture.

“I don’t think we have one selfish player on our team. We all want our brothers to shine. I feel like when everybody buys into that, you’re gonna raise banners.”

Now, the Wolverines have a prime chance to do that this weekend. If the Big Ten title is indeed determined by winning percentage, Michigan can clinch it on Saturday with a win over Indiana and an Illinois loss at Wisconsin. If that banner finds itself hanging at Crisler Center someday, it’ll be a testament to the culture Howard has created.

And with that culture at the forefront of the Wolverines’ postseason hopes, a regular-season championship might not be the only banner hanging come April.