It’s a tall enough task coaching in Ann Arbor at all. No matter the sport, expectations for Michigan teams, and an athletic department that spends the third-most among public schools nationally, are lofty.
But following one of the greatest coaches ever to lead the Wolverines in John Beilein? How do you even begin to think about that?
Juwan Howard’s message at Big Ten Media Day was clear: Beilein was great. But he’s going to be his own man. That’s how he’s bringing Michigan into the Howard era.
“I’m sure a lot of people think, you have a lot of pressure on you to try to fill those shoes,” Howard said at Media Day. “All I can say is this: I’m not going to try to be like coach Beilein. He has his philosophy, his way of doing things. I have my philosophy, and I feel that works for our team moving forward.”
Message received: new coach, new era.
And as the team starts to get into the rhythm of practice, of a new coach, of a new team and a new basketball season, the storylines that will shape this new era in Michigan basketball are starting to take shape.
After a 10-season playing career in the NBA, and six years as an assistant coach for the Miami Heat, Howard has turned the talent he showed in his years at Michigan into knowledge of the game on par with the coaching talent leaving Ann Arbor. Beilein would often pick Howard’s brain in the offseason, and Howard’s plans for the team’s defense are already drawing comparisons to former assistant coach Luke Yaklich’s defensive wizardry.
“He actually reminds me of Coach Yak,” said junior forward Isaiah Livers. “The defensive pressure, the defensive mind, all of that. His knowledge of the defensive side of basketball is just insane.”
But, true to his word, Howard is running practices his way. It’s inevitable in some ways: Howard is a good 20 years younger than his predecessor. The wonder in his face and in his voice when he points at the block 'M' pinned to his lapel, the grin on his face when he talks about his team and about the program he’s building in Ann Arbor — it’s impossible to ignore.
The energy, the excitement that he’s bringing to Michigan basketball — it’s almost palpable.
That enthusiasm that has embodied his approach to this new challenge hasn’t just showed up in quotes from on high, from behind a podium to a room of reporters. It’s in how he’s running this program.
“The vibe is a lot different,” said senior guard Zavier Simpson. “It’s definitely a positive vibe. Juwan brings a lot of energy.”
Youthful energy doesn’t preclude urgency, though. In preseason polls, the Wolverines were picked to finish fifth in the Big Ten. They disagree, and they’re determined to prove they’re right early on under Howard.
“The vibe? Serious,” Livers said. “We all know where they’ve got us projected, and we do not like it. At all. We’re not supposed to like it.”