For the Michigan men’s basketball team, Juwan Howard’s undefeated start is a pipe dream-turned-reality.
Just seven games into his tenure, the first-year coach has already scored a pair of top-10 wins. In doing so, he slayed two coaching juggernauts in North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Gonzaga’s Mark Few — both of whom rank top-10 in all-time winning percentage — en route to claiming last week’s Battle 4 Atlantis.
When Howard was first introduced, it appeared he’d be inheriting a shell of last season’s Sweet 16 team. The Wolverines’ three leading scorers jumped to the NBA, while the coach who built the program into a perennial contender followed suit soon after.
With only one recruit set to join the program following the decommitment of four-star forward Jalen Wilson, it seemed as though Howard’s first season could be discounted given the surrounding uncertainty. Instead, he retained four-star guard Cole Bajema’s pledge and lured Franz Wagner away from Alba Berlin of the EuroLeague.
For a program that was widely expected to take a short-term step backward under Howard, early returns have produced the opposite. And now, six months after losing Jordan Poole, Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and John Beilein, Michigan is ranked No. 4 in the nation after a record-tying leap from unranked territory.
It’s not a fluke — rather, it’s a product of Howard’s hiring and the culture he’s already established.
“First and foremost, (Howard is) just telling us it’s a player-led team and allowing us and giving us responsibility,” sophomore guard David DeJulius said after beating the Tar Heels. “When you get that responsibility, you take ownership of your own team. Other than that, he does a great job of having open, candid conversations with us on and off the floor.
“When you have a coach that you know cares about you genuinely, both on and off the floor, then you’ll run through a brick wall for him.”
This type of immediate success isn’t run of the mill, even in the highest-profile coaching gigs. By now, Howard has made it tough to believe he’s only a month removed from his first game at the helm, in which the Wolverines came dangerously close to squandering a 30-point lead against an Appalachian State team that finished 11-21 last season.
In each game since, Michigan has taken a step forward. An eye-opening one, at that. It’s a credit to Howard’s culture, which the nation noticed for the first time in the Bahamas.
“(There’s an) open-door policy,” junior guard Eli Brooks said after Michigan’s win over North Carolina. “Anytime you need (Howard), he’s there. He’ll let you know that, too. You can really feel it. Some people say it’s not real, but with him, it’s real.”
For Howard, such a culture is representative of his coaching style. By putting the power in the players’ hands during games, his preachings become more than just words.
“Coming out of half, usually, most coaches you may know want to adjust and control the game as much as possible,” junior forward Isaiah Livers said in Atlantis. “But we’re lucky enough to have a coaching staff where they let us dictate our own coming out in the second half, and then we rely on (Howard’s) words. He’s more of a players’ coach where he understands the game. You can’t play the game if you’re being controlled the whole time.”
From a technical standpoint, Howard has been equally effective in the same capacities that made him a well-regarded NBA assistant coach. During his six-year stint on the Miami Heat’s staff, he was responsible for the ascension of centers Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo.
Senior center Jon Teske is the perfect case study of Howard’s early impact in Ann Arbor. After posting 9.5 points and 7.0 rebounds across 27.9 minutes per game last season, he’s averaging 13.3 points and 9.7 rebounds on a career-best 56-percent clip from the field across fewer minutes per game (27.4) so far this year.
Howard’s impact on Teske was most apparent against the Tar Heels and Bulldogs, in particular, as the 7-foot-1 center tallied a combined 29 points and 23 rebounds en route to tournament MVP honors.
“Since the first day, (Howard) has been teaching me, showing me tips,” Teske said. “He’s got a lot of knowledge of the game, so just asking him questions and he’s more than willing to help me, and it’s showed the last couple of games.”
At this point, Howard appears to be well on his way to crafting the perfect marriage of culture and fundamentals.
Granted, most of this group was part of last season’s team, which climbed as high as No. 2 in the national poll following a program-best 17-0 start. After mid-January, though, Michigan lost seven of its final 20 games.
To first-year associate head coach Phil Martelli, who spent the last 34 years at St. Joseph’s, the attention around Howard’s immediate success is anything but an overreaction. In Howard, he sees someone with everything needed to reach the pinnacle of coaching.
“I’m here to help Juwan Howard coach on a Monday night in April,” Martelli said in October. “ … Because he’s going to do that.”
A month into Howard’s tenure, that proclamation is starting to sound a whole lot more plausible.
Dash can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @danieldash428.