John Beilein’s time as Michigan’s head men’s basketball coach included a run that most programs, blue bloods or otherwise, would dream of. His 12 years in Ann Arbor included nine NCAA Tournament appearances, five Sweet Sixteens, three Elite Eights and two trips to the national championship game.
Given that type of unprecedented success with the men’s basketball program, it was not a hot take to suggest the man that followed him would have a tough task in matching those feats.
Enter Juwan Howard, who was hired in the late spring of 2019 after Beilein made the jump to the NBA. This garnered groans from pockets of fans and pundits about his lack of head coaching experience and going back to the “Michigan Man” mold in making a major hire.
All Howard has done is cross off a laundry list of concerns that people held when he was tabbed for the job.
Howard has taken the baton from Beilein to build on — and potentially push forward — Michigan’s standing among the college basketball elite. The Wolverines advanced to their fourth-straight Sweet Sixteen appearance after a win over LSU on Monday night. Not many could have expected a Big Ten regular season championship and a No. 1 seed in year two, but that is exactly the position Michigan finds itself in with a chance to do more.
Michigan fans have enjoyed a magical ride all season long, but there is plenty of evidence that this run of success will continue in Ann Arbor with Howard’s steady hand on the steering wheel.
Turning role players into foundational pieces
The seeds for Michigan’s success were planted long before Howard’s arrival. Eli Brooks, Isaiah Livers (more on him in a bit) and Austin Davis were members of the 2018 team that made it to the national title game. Brooks, Livers and Davis all had varying roles, but none of the three were players that screamed “foundational piece.”
Howard inherited a roster in 2019-20 where suddenly, all three of those players were going to be in line for expanded roles. Livers used the offseason to transform his body and take on a bigger workload. Brooks developed into an off-ball guard and one of the best defensive players in the conference. Davis worked his way into being about as good a backup center as one could ask for. They created those opportunities for themselves, but their experience playing on winning teams early in their careers helped to establish a standard of what the expectations in Ann Arbor are.
Patience and adherence to a process are not always given in college basketball. Many players look to get on campus, play a prominent role and get to the NBA as soon as they can. Elite, consistent programs have a blend of veteran stalwarts and NBA talent. Michigan has both and that has been a common thread over the last decade.
That might be continuing moving forward.
Key pieces of Michigan’s future are once again playing a role early in their careers. Hunter Dickinson is an All-American as a freshman, but forward Terrance Williams and guard Zeb Jackson have had nice moments in the first few games of the tournament. The deeper the Wolverines go, the more opportunity it creates for them. That could pay dividends as early as next season as the roster continues to turn over.
Quick turnarounds, responding to adversity
This is Howard’s first taste of March Madness thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we have a solid sample size of how his teams prepare on short notice. Michigan won the 2019 Battle 4 Atlantis that saw them take on Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga in three consecutive days. Not only were they prepared, but they blew out the Tar Heels and Zags, who were ranked No. 6 and No. 8 at the time, respectively. Some people can take or leave a preseason tournament and what it means, but it showed that Howard could get his group ready for elite opponents without much time to prepare.
This season provided unique challenges in a pandemic of being on your heels at all times. The virus loomed over the year like a dark cloud and forced cancelations and reschedulings. Michigan got a taste of this early when NC State had to pull out of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge due to COVID-19 within the program. Howard was able to get Toledo on the phone and had them in as a replacement days before they were supposed to meet. The program had to navigate a three-week shutdown of the season because of the COVID variant in the athletics community despite it never making its way into the basketball building. Since then, they had a stretch of six games in 14 days and have now had to figure out how to make a run with Livers sidelined due to injury.
This year has thrown just about everything on the bingo card at the Wolverines.
It helps to have as good a support staff as Michigan does. Howard surrounded himself with Phil Martelli, who had previously spent 24 seasons as the head coach at St. Joseph’s and won 444 games. Saddi Washington was one of Beilein’s top assistants and remained to bridge the gap between both eras. Howard Eisley spent a decade as an assistant in the NBA and helped bring a pro mentality to the program. Strength and conditioning guru Jon Sanderson was also retained and has taken care of the physical side of building the roster.
One of Howard’s mantras is, “stay ready so you do not have to get ready.” His staff and the ability they have shown to adapt to challenges on short notice are the embodiment of that. That will be one of the things that keeps them in the national conversation for the foreseeable future.
Continued success on the recruiting trail, roster building
A program is only as good as the players and young men that come into the building. Howard has done nothing but hit home runs since he arrived. That might be the biggest reason why expectations have been surpassed so quickly. Franz Wagner was probably destined for Michigan anyways given his brother’s stardom at the school, but Howard still had to secure that commitment. Two years in, he looks like a lottery pick and one of the best two-way players in college basketball.
Howard took big swings on the recruiting trail the second he stepped on the plane to come to Ann Arbor. He was able to land a five-star in Isaiah Todd a few months after he was hired, then had the ear of another in Josh Christopher.
Both of those recruitments would eventually fall through, but he was still able to bring in the No. 14 class in the country and the top-ranked group in the Big Ten. The 2020 haul included three top-100 players in the aforementioned Dickinson, Williams and Jackson, as well his son, three-star forward Jace Howard.
Missing on Todd (G-League) and Christopher (Arizona State) was a blessing in disguise for Michigan. This allowed them to hit the transfer portal for veteran help and Howard came out of it with a starting point guard in Mike Smith and one of the best sixth-men in the country in Chaundee Brown.
Dickinson, Smith and Brown have been the secret ingredients to a fully-realized vision that Howard had for this team. Each player has fully bought in and become major pieces of a team that still looks like a title contender.
Given how almost everything has come together perfectly in building the 2020-21 roster, it would be understandable that some might think this is a storybook season. It might still be, but Michigan projects to bring in the No. 1 class in the country in the 2021 class with six signees ahead of next year. Five-stars forwards Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate bring the “pros at the prom” flavor to the program, while four-star guards Kobe Bufkin, Frankie Collins and Isaiah Barnes have the look of multi-year contributors. Three-star forward Will Tschetter might take some time but could develop into a nice rotational piece for the program after some seasoning.
Michigan has become one of the most consistent threats in college basketball over the last decade. Some believed that might peter out when Beilein left, but Howard is going to keep them in the spotlight. The Wolverines have done everything but win it all in its renaissance as a program. It is far from a guarantee that Howard delivers that, but the program has all of the tools to keep making a push even after this season.