Ann Arbor — The official start of Michigan’s 2019-20 campaign is under two weeks and counting.
Yet, several players and coaches already started pulling back the curtain and offered a sneak peek at what to expect when the Wolverines take the court under first-year coach Juwan Howard.
During the team’s media day last week, freshman wing Franz Wagner revealed Michigan will be playing “more of an NBA-style of game” this season.
"I'd say it's a lot faster than what college used to be,” said Wagner, who will be sidelined at least a month with a wrist injury. “Obviously there’s a longer shot clock in college, but we want to play fast and really make sure we take advantage of all our strengths on offense. We're not trying to play slow. We're trying to play together and play fast in transition.”
That, of course, would signal a shift from former coach John Beilein’s systematic offense that stressed making the right reads and plays while working the shot clock.
Michigan ranked No. 317 in the nation (out of 353 Division I teams) and No. 13 in the Big Ten (out of 14 teams) in KenPom’s adjusted tempo last season, averaging 64.8 possessions per 40 minutes. The Wolverines also averaged 18.5 seconds per offensive possession, which ranked No. 287 nationally and No. 12 in the Big Ten.
During Beilein’s 12-season tenure, Michigan averaged between 59.7 and 65.8 possessions per 40 minutes and cracked the top 200 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo just once. Dating to 2010, Michigan also has averaged 18.5 to 20.8 seconds per offensive possession.
But picking up the pace and being more aggressive — taking the first shot available as opposed to running a set deep into the shot clock, as junior forward Isaiah Livers explained — appears to be a welcomed change by the Wolverines.
Wagner enjoys the up-and-down style of play, Livers is “100 percent” on board with Howard’s vision and junior guard Eli Brooks said it allows everyone to get involved.
Sophomore guard David DeJulius said Beilein’s and Howard’s offenses both require making reads, but added “it’s night and day.”
“We're a lot faster-paced team now,” DeJulius said. “We had an offensive mind and guru in Coach B. Now we have a coach that (preaches) toughness and allows our natural capabilities to flourish a little more this season.”
According to assistant coach Howard Eisley, Howard’s system is geared toward a positionless style of basketball, which capitalizes on players’ versatility and doesn’t peg them into one specific role.
“You're allowing guys who maybe don't normally handle the ball as much, you're allowing them to be able to handle the ball more than say just your point guard or your secondary ball-handler. That's the way we want to play,” Eisley said. “I think it's harder to guard than just saying, ‘You go here, you play here.’ I think it speeds up the pace of the game, which we like, and it'll hopefully put some guys in positions that they haven't been in.
"I think it's going to be good for us to play in space and create early opportunities. That has been an emphasis — to play with pace."
Compared to this time last year when he was a fresh-faced freshman, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. said he’s been able to pick up Howard’s offense quicker than he did with Beilein’s.
"I think Coach B's system was complex to the point where it made you so understanding of the game,” Johns said. “Since Coach Howard came here I feel like everything has slowed down in a way. His system is simpler than what Coach B had. It's awesome because I feel a lot more confident in that way. I feel smarter on the court, I can see a lot more than I saw last year, so it's helping a lot.”
As Johns noted, Beilein’s system was unique with all its intricacies that took time for most players to fully grasp and become comfortable with.
But transitioning from a methodical offensive system to one that’s more uptempo will likely come with some kinks that will need to be smoothed out.
“What I like about it is it allows you to play free. But one thing that could go wrong is knowing what shot to take and I think that's something that we'll have to figure out early on,” Brooks said. “Coach Howard does a good job of tracking stats in practice and knowing what is a good shot for me and what's not.
"I feel like it's just more of a feel thing. You have to feel it out in practice and get comfortable with it. It's something that's going to take time and something you have to experience firsthand.”
When it comes to the defense, there will be different schemes and terminology but the same defensive mentality. Over the past two seasons, Michigan has been one of the best defensive teams in the nation, ranking No. 2 and No. 3 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency under former assistant and defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich.
While Yaklich is now at Texas, some of the principles remain. According to Brooks, Yaklich and Howard, who served as the defensive coordinator with the Miami Heat, both preach about playing defense without fouling.
“For the most part, good defenses are built on a lot of the same core values,” Brooks said. “That didn't change.”
DeJulius added the team is “grittier” on defense and Howard wants the Wolverines to be more tenacious while staying smart. There’s also an emphasis on every player being able to guard multiple positions. For example, Livers said he will guard the one through five and will be tasked with staying in front of more point guards this year.
As far as there being a defensive coordinator this season, assistant coach Saddi Washington said Howard is having him focus most of his attention on that end of the floor.
Washington said he has been “very fortunate” to work alongside defensive-minded coaches like Billy Donlon and Yaklich and pick their brains over the past three years.
“I think there will be a lot of similarities to what we've done in the past,” Washington said, “and then we will have our own tweaks and adjustments that we're going to make moving forward.”
Overall, Washington said everyone — from the coaches to the players — is getting acclimated to the style of play Howard wants to implement.
“Obviously when there's change there's new philosophies, new ideas,” Washington said. “Change is good. I give our guys a ton of credit for their ability to adjust and learn a relatively new system more so in terminology. There are a lot of things that are still similar because it is still basketball. I think we're happy as a staff with the direction we're moving in right now.”