When Michigan’s season tips off tonight, only the Wolverines’ jerseys will remind you of yesteryear.
By now, most have grown numb to the fact that John Beilein is gone. The shock doesn’t register nearly as much as it did only a few months ago. But on Tuesday night, it will resonate more than ever before. The man who spent the last decade-plus building the Michigan men’s basketball team into a perennial contender walked out the door on a mid-May morning, following in the footsteps of three early roster departures.
Despite coming off back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in program history, the defining elements of Michigan basketball suddenly felt unhinged. When Juwan Howard was hired, they went out the window.
And by no means is that a bad thing.
Howard will build his program on a completely different bedrock than Beilein, who began his coaching career as a junior varsity high school coach and worked his way up the ladder to Ann Arbor. His successor, however, spent the last two-and-a-half decades playing and coaching at the ladder’s highest rung. Naturally, they see the job through different lenses.
Take recruiting, for example. Beilein never signed a McDonald’s All-American, but that didn’t stop him from coaching a Monday night game in both April of 2013 and 2018. In doing so, his program became the gold standard of developing talent. That process started at square one, with Beilein’s teams notoriously beginning each season with the most basic of passing drills.
Howard, on the other hand, has employed his NBA pedigree in his attempt to shoot for the stars. Following his formal introduction at the end of May, he extended 13 scholarship offers to top-45 prospects over the summer, per the 247 Sports 2020 Composite Rankings. Among that group was five-star power forward Isaiah Todd, who ultimately chose Michigan over Kansas, which had been recruiting him since eighth grade.
Todd’s pledge is more than a commitment. It’s a seismic shift in the Wolverines’ recruiting, which now appears eager to go toe-to-toe with the nation’s top programs. Eight of the aforementioned top-45 recruits have already committed, five of which selected Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina.
While adding Todd doesn’t automatically make Michigan a one-and-done factory, it sure defines exactly who Howard wants to be on the recruiting trail.
Howard has been as aggressive as any other recruiter in the country since his hiring — an effort that appears aligned with the Wolverines’ anticipated transition to an NBA-like brand of basketball. Last season, Beilein’s offense finished 341st in the nation in possessions per game. In Friday’s exhibition onslaught, Michigan’s used every transition opportunity to attack the rim or create uncontested jumpers, while 19 first-half possessions ended in shots off one pass. There’ll be growing pains, particularly with shot selection, but that type of up-tempo offense was previously absent in Ann Arbor.
“If you’re open, I want our guys to shoot it,” Howard said on Friday. “I don’t want them to have a second guess or think the game and play like robots. I just want them to read the game, read time and possession.”
The philosophy led to 31 three-point attempts — a figure which Michigan eclipsed just twice all of last season.
“Coach Beilein liked quick shots if they were wide open,” said junior forward Isaiah Livers. “Coach Howard likes quick shots, but smart quick shots — not a contested shot. He wants to run. If we get stops, we better reward ourselves.
“ … It’s just the adjustment of you get a steal and there’s two guys ahead of you, you’re like, ‘Ah, I’m gonna hold off.’ That’s how it used to be. Coach Howard’s implemented you get up to that halfcourt and you get to that free throw line and then you make your decision of if you’re going to pull it out or go. ‘Just be a basketball player,’ that’s what he tells us.”
That message is in line with Howard’s idea of positionless basketball. With multiple players on the roster athletic enough to guard multiple positions, there’s room to get creative.
Against Appalachian State, the country will get a glimpse of what, exactly, that entails. And Ann Arbor will get a glimpse of what, exactly, hiring a first-time head coach with no college coaching experience entails.
The transition won’t be seamless, but early returns suggest Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel nailed this hire in the wake of Beilein’s sudden exit. It’s now up to the ones who wear the unchanged jerseys, not suits, to prove it.
Dash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @danieldash428.