It’s no question that Juwan Howard’s absence during his five-game suspension leaves a power vacuum atop the Michigan men’s basketball team’s coaching staff.
Still, with NCAA Tournament hopes on the line, the Wolverines have to hope to fill the hole Howard has left behind. And as proficient as Michigan acting coach Phil Martelli is at steering the ship of a Division 1 men’s basketball program, no one man can replace Howard at the helm — it takes a whole crew.
To Martelli’s left and right are assistant coaches Howard Eisley and Saddi Washington.
“Howard Eisley was the offensive coordinator,” Martelli said after Wednesday night’s win against Rutgers. “Very similar to a football staff, he made those calls. … Again, credit goes to Frankie Collins, Eli Brooks and (DeVante’ Jones) because they were connected with Howard Eisley. … And Saddi has been defensive coordinator.”
At least on Wednesday, that “football staff” approach appeared to work like a well-oiled machine. The Wolverines beat the Scarlet Knights — who came in having won four of their last five, including three Quadrant 1 wins — rather handily.
Michigan successfully performed its gameplan, finding open looks off of offensive sets and forcing Rutgers into bad shots on the defensive end. Even in and out of timeouts, the Wolverines executed.
Martelli described Howard’s offensive knowledge as a “rolodex” of gameplans and after timeout plays (ATOs) both in his introductory press conference on Tuesday as well as after Wednesday’s win. Without Howard being there to make those decisions, it appeared that the Wolverines might be in jeopardy.
Howard, however, felt completely assured.
“When I spoke to Juwan Howard last night, he said, ‘I feel fine. I have the best coaching staff in America.’ ” Martelli said Wednesday. “… That (win) was Saddi Washington and Howard Eisley. And then those young guys.”
After a pause, Martelli made sure to praise “those young guys.” While all coaches give credit to their players — after all, they are the ones on the floor putting the ball through the basket — Martelli’s commendation meant a bit more. It wasn’t just for how they played, but how they prepared.
To start, freshman forward Moussa Diabate and sophomore forward Terrance Williams II were suspended from Wednesday’s game due to the altercation in Madison. That didn’t stop them from providing their team with what value they could. Diabate and Williams played for the scout team in practice leading up to the game. And they weren’t “half in,” as Martelli put it, they were fully committed to preparing their teammates for the test to come.
And that level of player buy-in came from the top as well. Michigan’s leader, fifth-year guard Eli Brooks, was in tune with Martelli and the rest of the coaching staff, doing just as much to prepare his teammates for each game as they were.
And he’s going to do it all again come Friday.
“Now we’re off (Thursday),” Martelli said. “And when you have a leader like Eli Brooks, we’ll have their attention on Friday to play an afternoon game on Sunday against a nationally ranked team.”
For the Wolverines to find success on Sunday — and in their three other remaining regular season games without Howard — they will have to rely on more than just Martelli to carry them through.
Michigan’s going to need a whole team.
“I’m a part of it,” Martelli said Tuesday. “I’m no more or less a part of it than Howard Eisley or Saddi Washington or Eli. We’re doing this together moving forward.”