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As Juwan Howard spoke at his introductory press conference as the newly-minted coach of the Michigan men’s basketball team in May of 2019, he conceded that recruiting was “going to be a challenge.”

Among all the unknowns surrounding Howard, recruiting was at the forefront. He arrived at Michigan with no prior college coaching experience. On the recruiting trail, he was very much a neophyte. 

Fifteen months later, Howard has squashed any skepticism. 

By the time of Howard’s hiring, the 2020 recruiting cycle was well under way. Still, he strung together a four-man class that ranked No.1 in the Big Ten even without five-star power forward Isaiah Todd, who decommitted in April, and five-star shooting guard Josh Christopher, who spurned Michigan for Arizona State last-minute. 

And, entering Wednesday’s early national signing day, Michigan boasted the nation’s top-ranked 2021 class. Should the ranking hold, it will be the Wolverines’ highest finish in the 247Sports composite era. 

“All I can say with recruiting (is) we try to go after guys that we feel fit our culture,” Howard said during a Zoom call with reporters on Monday. “And fortunately enough, last year’s class and now this upcoming class, 2021, these guys want to be here at Michigan. We want them here. We’re looking forward to building something special, a winning, competitive group.”

The prodigious six-man 2021 class that Howard has assembled certainly has the potential to expedite that process. Headlining the group is the five-star duo of Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate, the ninth- and 20th-ranked recruits, per 247Sports. A 6-foot-8 forward, Houstan is a gifted perimeter player — he shot 53% from beyond the arc last season at Montverde Academy, where he was a teammate of freshman guard Zeb Jackson — and possesses the requisite height to play in the post. Diabate, standing at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan to boot, is both a menacing rim protector and formidable interior presence. 

But Howard isn’t sacrificing depth to pick up a flashy recruit or two. Four-stars Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin make for a compelling backcourt, with Collins being an aggressive, athletic point guard and Bufkin a versatile, 6-foot-4 combo guard. Isaiah Barnes, a Chicago native plucked from Howard’s backyard, is an athletic two-way wing player. Three-star power forward Will Tschetter, the least-heralded of the group, led the state of Minnesota in scoring with 34.4 points per game last season. 

With Michigan facing impending personnel turnover at season’s end — five key players are slated to graduate and sophomore wing Franz Wagner may very well declare for the NBA Draft — a strong 2021 class was imperative to replenish the roster. Howard has surpassed all reasonable expectations and has done so during a pandemic that has transformed the recruiting industry into a predominantly virtual phenomenon, among other challenges. 

“Our staff, we don’t make any excuses,” Howard said. “We had to figure it out as well and see what was the best way to go out there and recruit. … We have a great staff that embraces working hard, not making excuses for ourselves and doing whatever we can despite what we’ve been dealing with as a country.

“I’ve always lived by this slogan ‘embrace the suck.’ Why sit back and be upset with the fact that we can’t have recruits on campus and show them the Michigan experience? Well, let’s take the Michigan experience to them.”

That involved a steady diet of Zoom calls with the coaching staff, film sessions and slideshows to showcase Michigan’s campus and facilities, Tschetter told The Daily in September. In Tschetter’s case, Howard and associate coach Phil Martelli FaceTimed him during his visit to campus in July, serving as de facto tour guides.

As a recruiter, Howard’s NBA pedigree gives him an inherent advantage with prospects who yearn to replicate his professional career. Still, such a background doesn’t automatically correlate to success on the recruiting trail — Chris Mullin failed to lure top-level talent to St. Johns, and Patrick Ewing has struggled to do so on a consistent basis at Georgetown. 

Rather than rely solely on his NBA experience, Howard has bought into Michigan’s culture — which he experienced first-hand as a member of the Fab Five —  and placed an emphasis on establishing personal connections. 

“(My relationship with Howard has) been great,” Tschetter said. “He’s checking in, even after I committed. The big thing with Michigan was comfort level with coaches. … That stood out from other colleges.”

Added Eric Taylor, Bufkin’s coach at Grand Rapids Christian High: “One of the things that stands out is the connection that Kobe has with coach Howard. On his visits, I just think they made a connection there that was genuine and that Kobe felt really comfortable about in his decision process.”

Even with the early success, Howard’s recruiting technique isn’t foolproof. In a stark contrast to the strategy of his predecessor, John Beilein, Howard has sought after top recruits, pitting Michigan against blue-blood programs like Duke and Kentucky. Naturally, that’s going to lend itself to swings-and-misses. Howard learned that the hard way over a volatile 24-hour span in April, when Christopher chose Arizona State and Todd decommitted to enroll in the NBA’s G League program. 

Recruiting, though, requires a short-term memory. And Howard transitioned seamlessly, switching gears from April’s debacle to focus on the next targets. Barnes became the first addition to the 2021 class in late-June. Bufkin, Tschetter and Collins entered the fold over the summer. When Houstan committed on Oct. 30, becoming the first five-star of Howard’s tenure, Michigan’s 2021 class vaulted to the top spot in the nation. 

By the time Diabate announced his commitment to Michigan on Monday, it was mere icing on the cake. 

“I don’t get into the ratings, number one classes and stuff like that,” Howard said. “I’ll let whoever does that decide.

“I just go after guys that I feel fit our culture. And it’s great to see that those who have chosen Michigan embrace the vision that we have moving forward.” 

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