Not long ago, people openly questioned whether or not Juwan Howard would pan out as a college basketball head coach. Those doubts came in roaring fashion when he was introduced as Michigan’s 17th coach in program history in May 2019, but after the Wolverines’ 7-0 start to the 2019-20 season, they faded into murmurs.
Today, all that’s left in silence.
Howard has proven beyond the shade of a doubt that he’s one of America’s best coaches. To understand why, look no further than Sunday night’s Sweet 16 matchup against No. 4 seed Florida State.
At one end, Leonard Hamilton was preparing his Seminoles for their third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance. A 33-year college veteran, Hamilton ranks as the ACC’s fifth-winningest coach of all time.
On the other bench, Howard was navigating uncharted waters. It’s his first postseason as a college coach, and the Wolverines are without arguably their best player in senior forward Isaiah Livers (foot).
It didn’t matter. Howard put on a masterclass of a coaching performance from start to finish, and the result was a 76-58 blowout win, sending Michigan to its fourth Elite Eight in the last eight NCAA Tournaments.
“I like to give the coaching staff some credit,” Franz Wagner said. “I think we made some good plays that really put us in good positions out there. I mean, like I said, we basically knew how they were going to play us all game with fronting the post and switching everything. So we kind of knew what to expect and did that in practice.”
Howard spent six years as an assistant coach in the NBA, but most of that was devoted to player development. He wasn’t necessarily known as a game-planner or strategist at the time of his hiring, but he’s since quelled those doubts.
During the week of Thanksgiving in 2019, Howard took his unranked Wolverines to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. There, Michigan beat Iowa State, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga by a combined 34 points over a three-day stretch. Howard and his staff had the Wolverines ready for each game despite the 12-hour turnarounds, and they left the weekend ranked No. 4 nationally.
This season, shades of that quick turnaround ability are showing in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan’s gameplan made LSU’s elite offense uncomfortable on just two days’ notice in last weekend’s Round of 32, and the Wolverines were ready to combat the nation’s tallest team in Florida State less than a week later.
On the mental side of the game, that starts with instilling confidence in his players.
“That’s what we’re here for, to empower these young men who have put in a lot of hard work and effort every day in practice, games,” Howard said. “If you break their confidence, then they will not be able to go out there and compete at a high level. The trust is earned, not only just from the players, but also coaches. We have to earn their trust. … The trust and the belief is there on both sides. That’s a part of our culture, a keyword, trust.”
Within games themselves, Howard has shown an ability to adapt on the fly. He’ll often switch Michigan’s defense from man to zone coming out of timeouts, and he’s also not afraid to change matchups in the flow of the game. Howard opted to put Hunter Dickinson on LSU forward Trendon Watford a few minutes into the second half against the Tigers last week, and the Wolverines ran away with the game over the next few minutes.
Howard didn’t miss a beat after taking over for John Beilein, and it’s hard to ignore the foundation he’s laid for the future. Howard has Michigan firmly in the mix for a national title this season with the country’s No. 1 recruiting class arriving next fall, and he’s established a culture that has drawn national praise.
“Our guys do an amazing job of celebrating one another’s success because it’s a brotherhood that’s special,” Howard said. “It’s not just a word when you talk about family and brotherhood. Those guys really believe it and buy into it because that’s the care and love that they have for each other.”
So long as Howard is at the helm, games like Sunday night could very well become an annual occurrence for the Wolverines.