Before the second word of the next question could be uttered, Juwan Howard politely interrupted. Michigan’s first-year head coach had just finished extolling the work of Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, but wanted to make one thing clear.
“But I want the media to know this, too, now and everybody in Ann Arbor to know this” Howard told reporters with a slight grin. “Just because I give these nice compliments to people, doesn’t mean I’m scared.
“I just respect and appreciate those who have come before me. You gotta respect those who have come before you. You have to humble yourself every now and then — eat a little humble pie. I’ve done that, but I’m not scared of anyone.”
Howard’s assertion comes just 36 hours before his Wolverines travel to East Lansing on Sunday to take on Izzo and the 14th-ranked Spartans. While Howard experienced the notoriously boisterous Breslin Center as a Michigan player, it will be his first trip there as the Wolverines’ leading man.
“It was tough to win (at Breslin Center) as a player,” Howard said. “I remember the great Jud Heathcote, one of the best coaches in college basketball. And I remember when coach (Izzo) was his assistant. They have a lot of basketball minds that have gone through that program as a player or coach.”
Added sophomore guard David DeJulius: “They have a lot of tradition and a great coach, Tom Izzo. They play with a championship pedigree, each and every time you play against them. And then you add the crowd and the student section, it’s most definitely difficult.”
A season ago, the Wolverines went 0-3 against Michigan State — most notably, the season finale that decided the Big Ten regular season champion and the Big Ten Tournament championship game. With his experience playing in the rivalry, Howard knows just how much those losses stung.
“I guarantee it didn’t feel too good,” Howard said. “It definitely hurts and is like a thorn in your side. As a guy who’s a Michigan man and loves Michigan as much as I do, losing three times, it was painful to watch.”
While Howard would love to get off on the right foot in this rivalry, no one is more hungry to avenge last season’s losses to the Spartans than the Wolverines’ players.
“You can see everyone’s focus levels have picked up,” DeJulius said. “Everyone is locked in and engaged, down to the managers.”
Michigan enters the contest two slots ahead of Michigan State in the AP Poll, but ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Wolverines just an 18.4-percent chance of leaving East Lansing with a win. The Spartans’ home court advantage obviously factors into that calculation, but the play of their All-American point guard Cassius Winston last season against Michigan is also significant.
“He does amazing things with the basketball,” Howard said. “He has great patience and pace to his game and can shoot the ball very well from outside… With some of the reads he was able to make off those ball screens. It never felt like he was sped up in any kind of way. There were possessions in the games (last year) where it was in our favor. Things in the first two games looked like it was headed toward a victory for us, but Cassius found a way. He’s one of those guys that has that ‘it-factor.’ ”
Fortunately for Howard, he can rely on his own senior point guard Zavier Simpson, who’s averaging 11.2 points and 8.9 assists per game.
“With Zavier, I have Tom Brady on my side,” Howard said. “I feel very confident as far as who we have in that locker room and my leader, who I can trust and believe in. He’s faced them many times and he treats every opponent the same and respects every opponent, but his preparation is like no other.”
Michigan will likely be without leading scorer, junior forward Isaiah Livers for the second game in a row after suffering a groin injury against Presbyterian two weeks ago. Still, with Simpson and senior center Jon Teske leading the way, the Wolverines have the pieces to pull off an upset at Breslin.
Juwan Howard knows that. Which is why, as much as he respects Michigan State and Izzo, he and his team remain undaunted.