Juwan Howard faces plenty of immediate challenges as Michigan coach
One by one, the dominoes have fallen.
Charles Matthews. Jordan Poole. John Beilein. Ignas Brazdeikis. Luke Yaklich.
Michigan’s three leading scorers, the program’s all-time winningest coach and the team’s defensive guru are all leaving Ann Arbor, and leaving new coach Juwan Howard to pick up the pieces.
Undoubtedly a tough task awaits Howard, but it’s far from the situation former college stars like Penny Hardaway (Memphis), Patrick Ewing (Georgetown) and Chris Mullin (St. John’s) had to inherit at their scuffling alma maters.
Michigan basketball is healthy and humming, with 20-win seasons and trips to the Sweet 16 becoming the norm. And now it’s up to Howard, who will have his introductory news conference at noon Thursday, to make sure it stays that way.
While that's easier said than done, that's just one of the challenges Howard will face in his first year on the job.
Finding right assistants
One of Howard’s top priorities will be surrounding himself with a strong support staff. That means he’ll need to find assistant coaches who can help him grow, identify those who can help strengthen his weaknesses and learn to effectively delegate responsibilities.
Given Howard has no head-coaching experience, he could look to add a former college head coach to lean on for guidance for everything on and off the court. And given his role as a defensive-minded assistant with the Miami Heat, he could look to add a de facto offensive coordinator.
While the timing of Howard’s hiring doesn’t give him a full pool of candidates to pick from, it’s still a balancing act that could take time to figure out.
It wasn’t until Beilein’s fourth year at Michigan he found the right assistants to complement him, and the Wolverines thrived when everyone on staff had their distinct roles. Last season, Beilein focused on the offense and Yaklich handled the defense, while other assistants Saddi Washington worked with the big men and DeAndre Haynes worked with the guards.
Filling out roster
As it stands, the Wolverines have three available scholarships for the 2019-20 season and not a whole lot of options. The top 2019 prospects have already found a home and there’s slim pickings on the grad transfer market.
Michigan has a chance to bring back former signee Jalen Wilson but will have its work cut out. Wilson, who posted an eyeballs emoji on Twitter shortly after Howard’s hiring, has official visits scheduled for Kansas and North Carolina — two schools who are also in need of a wing — and no timeline set for his decision. He’s also the only top-100 recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings who is still uncommitted.
Oakland grad transfer Jaevin Cumberland and German prospect Franz Wagner are two other possibilities. Cumberland, a sharp-shooting guard, was offered by Michigan earlier this month, but he could be lured to Cincinnati to join his cousin Jarron Cumberland, who withdrew from the NBA Draft this week. Wagner, the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moritz Wagner, reportedly took an official visit to Michigan shortly after Beilein left for the NBA, which is a less-than-ideal situation for someone who met a staff that might not even remain intact and who has an option to stay with his pro team in Germany.
Howard will have to decide whether he wants to fill the open roster spots or try to bank one or two of them for the 2020 recruiting cycle, which could put Michigan in a tough spot if injuries strike next season.
Of the 10 players currently on scholarship, four are sophomores-to-be Colin Castleton, Brandon Johns Jr., David DeJulius and Adrien Nunez, who all averaged less than five minutes and two points per game as freshmen.
The foursome's offseason development will be critical for a team that lost close to 60 percent of its scoring and returns only four players with significant playing experience — Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks.
It’ll be up to Howard, who helped develop Miami's big men, to get more out of Castleton, Johns, DeJulius and Nunez and help them take the next step similar to Livers and Poole, who both played vital roles for Michigan as sophomores.
However, it also depends on what position Howard views as the best fit for each player. While there’s no doubt Castleton could become the reliable backup center Michigan lacked most of last season, Johns spent most of his time at the five instead of his natural position at the four and DeJulius played at both guard spots.
The biggest question, though, remains at Poole's vacated two spot. Reserve minutes trickled to Brooks and DeJulius last year, but Nunez (6-foot-6) has the prototypical build for the position.
Establishing a system
One of the keys to Beilein’s success was his system he ran to fit his personnel and his ability to constantly adjust it to his players’ strengths during the season. Over his time in Ann Arbor, he went from running a two-guard offense and 1-3-1 zone to running an offense that relies on ball-screen action and a defense that’s primarily man-to-man.
Under Beilein, Michigan was known for taking care of the ball and valuing each possession while working deep into the shot clock. Yet, Howard has spent the last 25 years in the NBA, where the game is played at a faster pace and utilizes more isolation situations, an area Michigan struggled with last season.
With Yaklich gone, it also remains to be seen whether Howard will maintain some of the defensive principles that have worked over the past two seasons and that the players have bought into.
Since Howard has never been a head coach, it’s unclear what his system will look like, what style of play he wants to implement and how all that will mesh with the current cast of Wolverines.
Year in and year out, Beilein judged his team’s success by the same criteria: Did Michigan compete for the Big Ten regular-season title? Did Michigan compete for the Big Ten tournament title? Did Michigan make a run in the NCAA Tournament?
Those standards won’t change given Michigan’s recent stretch of success that includes five Sweet 16 appearances, two trips to the national title game, two conference tournament titles and a Big Ten regular-season crown over the last seven seasons.
But there’s more for Howard to uphold than that. During Beilein’s tenure, Michigan was considered one of the cleanest programs in the nation that had no off-the-court issues or NCAA violations.
It’s big shoes for anyone to fill, even a high-profile alumnus like Howard. But with a core of Simpson, Teske and Livers, Howard has the pieces to win right away and an expectation to pick up where Beilein left off.