So let’s get one thing out of the way: Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson aren’t walking through the door.
Michigan probably isn’t going to come out wearing black shoes, black socks and baggy shorts in every game next season.
And next year’s Wolverines almost certainly won’t make it to the national championship game. Hell, at this point, it’s an open question whether they’ll make the NCAA Tournament at all.
That’s the situation that Juwan Howard inherits as he begins his tenure as the 17th head coach in Michigan men’s basketball history.
Howard’s credentials as a player are beyond reproach. He played 19 years in the NBA. He averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game for his career, was a former All-Star and won titles with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. In his six years as an assistant coach with the Heat, he’s garnered league-wide respect for his defensive acumen.
But as far as Howard’s identification to Michigan? You only need two words: “Fab Five.”
There’s no way to write a comprehensive history of college basketball — check that, basketball — without the quintet of Howard, Rose, Webber, King and Jackson, the highly-touted recruiting class that made two National Championship games together and started a sporting and cultural revolution nearly three decades ago. It’s clear that much of the excitement that marked that era of Michigan basketball has carried over to Howard’s hire.
“I think it’s great to have somebody (like Howard) at the helm,” Zack Novak, a Wolverine guard from 2008-2012, told The Daily. “I think it’s a great story to have somebody that’s got a rich history with the program and competed at a high level at Michigan that’s going to be coming in and taking over.”
None of that is a false representation. None of that matters as far as winning basketball games.
To be sure, there’s at least one quantifiable benefit to a Fab Five cornerstone coaching Michigan: the recruiting trail. Howard’s accomplishments hold plenty of cache, even among players who weren’t born during the Fab Five’s heyday. Jalen Wilson, a forward from Texas who recently decommitted from the Wolverines after John Beilein’s departure, was actually named after Rose, and Howard’s hiring caught his eye, at the very least.
“I do think he’ll be a great recruiter because he’ll be able to relate to people. He has a story and narrative to himself just from having played,” Josh Bartelstein, a Michigan guard from 2009-2013, told The Daily. “He has a little bit of mystique to him, and there’s a narrative for someone who was part of the Fab Five, and played in the NBA and was successful.”
But that’s still only a foot in the door. Howard’s name recognition won’t take Michigan back to that era, even while it can help convince players to play for him. There’s no doubt the Fab Five still has plenty of weight, but the reality is that in 2019, the Wolverines are a completely different program.
Much of Beilein’s success over the last 12 years came on the backs of players the exact opposite of Howard, Webber, Rose, King and Jackson. Beilein spun gold out of two and three-star recruits, Division III transfers and the occasional superstar. His coaching style eventually became inextricable with Michigan as a whole.
Last season’s Wolverines, while evolved far from the two-guard offense of yesteryear, were still a prototypical Beilein team. All six of their top rotation players had debilitating flaws, but those flaws somehow cancelled each other out, to the point where Michigan ended up winning 30 games, making the Sweet Sixteen and losing to the eventual national runner-up.
It would have been easy to talk yourself into next year’s team doing something similar had Beilein remained. Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske would have anchored the team with their pick-and-roll game and elite defense. Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks and maybe a transfer or other unsung addition would have provided shooting. Wilson would have been the bucket-getter the Wolverines lacked at times last year.
Instead, this is Howard’s team. It’s unknown how much of Beilein’s staff he’ll retain — defensive mastermind Luke Yaklich, for one, might be the first domino to fall. It’s unknown if Wilson will recommit, or if Howard can fill the three open scholarships Michigan has for next season. It’s unknown if he’ll keep any of the Wolverines’ current offensive and defensive systems in place.
Really, that’s the thing with Howard, purely from an on-court perspective. He’s never been a college coach, and never been a head coach at any level. Everything is an unknown.
“He’s coming into a bit of a difficult situation losing three guys who played heavy minutes,” Novak said. “Having been there at the beginning of Beilein’s tenure, you gotta have some patience and let him get his legs under him, but my expectation — the same as his and everyone else’s — is to build on what coach Beilein started and keep it moving.”
Beilein made Michigan into a national powerhouse in his own way. Now he’s gone, but the legacy he built is still there — and Howard will be expected to add to it in his own way. If maybe not this year, then next, or the year after that.
“The program’s been rolling,” Novak said. “My expectation would be to not see a drop-off. You still have the resources and the support, and I think he has the same expectations, from what I’m reading.”
Howard doesn’t need to restore any glory days. His only mandate is to create more. And if you squint hard enough into the unknown, there are reasons to believe he can do just that.
As far as strategy, we’ll likely just have to wait and see. But there’s nothing to suggest that Howard, reputably a strong defensive mind, won’t figure out a way to get the most out of his teams.
And if Howard is adept at using his Fab Five clout in recruiting, the leap from the pro to the amateur game may not be that wide, seeing as Bartelstein noted that the Heat’s culture is already “like a college program, meaning the way they take care of players and their families, and their mental and physical wellness through off-season programs.” And it certainly doesn’t hurt that superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who both played alongside and were coached by Howard, gave him ringing endorsements on Twitter.
But in any other terms?
Right now, the Fab Five is just a much-read, but distant, chapter in Michigan basketball’s rich history. Beilein’s time in Ann Arbor is another.
It’s up to Howard to keep writing the story.
Shames can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.