SAN ANTONIO — Thirty-three days ago, Juwan Howard’s coaching career was at a bit of a crossroads.
His graduate transfer point guard he brought in to run his offense stumbled out of the gates. His third-ranked recruiting class had fallen well short of expectations, failing to show any consistency. And worst of all, he had embarrassed his players, his program and himself by striking Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft.
As much as Howard had shown in his first two years in Ann Arbor, questions about whether he was truly cut out for this, whether his tenure would have the longevity many hoped for when he was hired, were fair to ask.
Could Howard succeed with a younger, developmental roster built almost entirely himself, or was he too reliant on a ready-made, veteran group?
But in those 33 days, the Wolverines’ season flipped on its head, and with it, Howard’s coaching outlook. Instead of a newcomer with about as much failure as success, he’s a damn good coach capable of guiding one of the most troubled Michigan teams in recent memory to the Sweet Sixteen.
Sure, there are still knocks. The development of the aforementioned freshmen, particularly five-stars Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate, left a lot to be desired. His rotations were questionable at times — he often favored the stunted Brandon Johns Jr. over the emerging Terrance Williams II, or played lineups that seemed to inherently lack chemistry.
Entering the NCAA Tournament, though, the Wolverines weren’t a mystery. They were no longer the team that entered the season ranked sixth in the nation and fell well short. They were no longer one of the most talented teams in the country. They were a team that teetered on the edge of disaster for nearly their entire season, barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament and were expected to exit swiftly. Graduate guard DeVante’ Jones’s concussion days before Michigan’s Round of 64 game only enhanced that expectation.
When asked Thursday if there was a third scorer he was concerned about containing, Villanova coach Jay Wright listed off a handful of names: Houstan, Williams, Jones. We’ve seen each of them become that guy at times this season, but Wright’s answer emphasized Howard’s challenge: The Wolverines never truly found a consistent third option.
But Howard turned that middling group into a Sweet Sixteen team. He worked with what he had, within his new reality that this team wasn’t nearly as strong as outsiders expected, to end the season on a positive note.
Despite expected key contributors who could never find a rhythm, despite a lackluster bench full of players who could never take the next step, despite an injury to his starting point guard, Howard put on a coaching clinic over those first two games to salvage Michigan’s season.
What happened Thursday night against the Wildcats didn’t matter. Considering the path of the Wolverines’ season, everything after the Round of 32 was gravy.
Freshman guard Frankie Collins played as well as he had all season in Jones’s absence, but Howard set him up to succeed, scheming up easy entry passes and ensuring he could rely on fifth-year guard Eli Brooks. Against Tennessee, Howard made the call to go away from Houstan and Diabate, instead sticking with Williams down the stretch. Williams backed up Howard’s confidence, making multiple crucial plays.
And in each of Michigan’s first two games, it trailed by five or more at halftime. The adjustments Howard made, both switching up defensive looks and helping get sophomore center Hunter Dickinson in dangerous spots, keyed it to two victories.
In Thursday’s postgame press conference, Howard made sure any praise was given to his players. “It’s all about them,” he insists. It’s a stance he’s held since he arrived in Ann Arbor.
The reality, though, is that the Wolverines’ success does have a lot to do with Howard.
Howard took a team that many thought was undeserving or incapable of achieving in March to the point where this season can be considered somewhat of a success. Even the best teams are no guarantee to make it past the Sweet Sixteen.
In 33 days, Howard was able to reverse his narrative and return to the stature he gained during last season’s Elite Eight run. The lasting image of this season won’t be Howard striking Krabbenhoft and hanging his team out to dry. Instead, it’ll be his smile after toppling the Volunteers, or his joyous hug with Chris Webber, or his arms wrapped around Tennessee guard Kennedy Chandler, consoling his former target after a loss. There are still question marks, but every coach has those, at least until claiming a National Championship — and they often still do after.
One of those questions no longer remains, though. This March, after a season that raised many doubts, Howard proved that Michigan has the right man at the helm.