It may be hard to believe, but Juwan Howard is still relatively new to this. 

Howard is entering just his second year in charge of the Michigan men’s basketball team, but in many ways, it feels like his fifth. At this point, last season’s opener against Appalachian State seems like it was 20 months ago instead of 10. The Wolverines’ Battle 4 Atlantis title is ancient history and their up-and-down performances in the Big Ten last winter a distant memory. 

It’s easy to attribute those impressions to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the months of quarantine that ensued. What’s maybe not as apparent is why Howard seems so comfortable in his role just 18 months in. According to those closest to the program, though, Howard adjusted to the position immediately. 

“I think Coach (Howard) has been comfortable since Day One, personally,” fifth year center Austin Davis said. “He embraces his role and really expects and demands the best from us. But he’s got a great way of getting it out of us.

“I think he’s done a tremendous job keeping us together throughout all of this. It can’t be easy coming in for you first year and having something like this happen. I would imagine that that could shake the best of them and he’s done great with it. He’s helped us along the way and always been there for us.”

While the pandemic disrupted Howard’s first season, it also demonstrated his knack for connecting with his team. Howard has been called a ‘players’ coach’ since arriving in Ann Arbor. With the Wolverines split up during quarantine, that characterization rang true. 

Howard organized weekly Zoom calls with the team throughout the spring and summer. Rather than focused on basketball, the meetings were more to check in with his players and staff. 

“It was more about just catching up and being able to see each other face to face a little bit,” Davis said. “… I think we all understand that there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world today and we’re just taking it a day at a time. Coach Howard always says ‘One percent better everyday’ and I think we’ve extended that beyond the court and with workouts. I think we’ve done a great job of sticking together through it all.”

In addition to keeping the existing team together, the Zoom calls also served as introductions for Michigan’s newest players. Four freshmen and two incoming transfers — guards Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown — were initially integrated virtually. 

“We just kinda got to know each other a bit through (Zoom),” Davis said. “I probably shouldn’t say ‘shooting the shit’ but you know, we just got to know each other.

“We were checking in throughout the summer and then when there came that point where we were able to come back to campus — I believe all the returners were able to come back a couple weeks before and could get into the routine of workouts. And then when their day rolled around and they were able to come back, I think we were all just really excited to get to know them face to face. Nothing can compare to actual human interaction. So that was great to be able to do that and I think we’ve all melded together really well since then.” 

One of those new faces, former Columbia guard Mike Smith, credits Howard’s disposition for drawing him to Michigan. Despite offers from other major programs like Gonzaga and Oregon, Smith chose the Wolverines because of Howard’s ability to relate on a personal level. 

“People reached out to me about (Howard) too, telling me that he’s a great guy, which he is,” Smith said. “He’s a wonderful guy, not even just a great coach. He cares about who you are as a person and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with basketball. I could see that when he was recruiting me. He really cared about who I am and what’s going on in my life instead of ‘What do you bring to the team?’” 

Having to navigate the abrupt end to last season and everything that followed was unfamiliar to coaches around college basketball, let alone those in their first 12 months on the job. Through Zoom and consistent check-ins, Howard and his approachable demeanor has fostered a newfound sense of camaraderie for Michigan. 

“Honestly it makes us a family,” Davis said. “We see ourselves and I truly believe that we are a family. I think that helps us tremendously when distance and all of these factors come into play. We’re all there to support each other.

“We always have different options to go to for whatever we need. The support factor is just huge during this time.”

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