Analyst: Top-five finish in Big Ten would be 'extraordinarily good' start for UM's Juwan Howard

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

The Wolverines were among the top dogs in the Big Ten last season, falling a win short of snagging a share of the regular-season title before advancing to the conference tournament title game for the third straight year.

Duplicating that contender status and keeping pace in the Big Ten race this season, though, will be a tall task.

“The Big Ten is really good, so it's going to be a challenge,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said Thursday on a conference call.

“There are so many good teams in the league.”

Michigan head basketball coach Juwan Howard, in gray, gathers his team around at the start of practice.

It starts with Michigan State, the consensus No. 1 team that beat Michigan three times a year ago. The Spartans are led by All-American Cassius Winston, who has racked up a bevy of preseason accolades, and feature emerging players like forward Xavier Tillman and wing Aaron Henry.

Then there’s Maryland, another preseason top-10 team that boasts a formidable inside-outside tandem with guard Anthony Cowan and big man Jalen Smith.

More: 'His program is the envy of the game': ESPN's Bilas gushes over MSU's Izzo

Also in the top 25 in the Associated Press and coaches’ preseason polls are Ohio State and Purdue. The Buckeyes brought back numerous pieces and added three top-50 recruits to the mix, while the Boilermakers seemingly always find a way to keep chugging along after losing key players.

“Michigan State and Maryland are potentially top-five teams. I think Maryland has got a chance to be top five, that's how good they are,” Bilas said. “They've got a sophomore class that is one of those classes that Maryland fans won't forget because I think they're going to stick around and then they've got Anthony Cowan at point. Purdue is going to be really good.

“I would say if Michigan could crack the top five (in the Big Ten), that would be a really good year because Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa will be pretty good. I think Penn State will be much better this year and challenge for the NCAA Tournament. I think Penn State has an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, so if Michigan gets into the top five that would be an extraordinarily good first year for Juwan Howard.”

There’s reason for both optimism and concern regarding Michigan’s chances to make noise under Howard. The good news is the Wolverines have senior guard Zavier Simpson, senior center Jon Teske and junior forward Isaiah Livers, who have no shortage of winning experience and played a role in the team’s 63-15 record over the past two seasons.

“What I like about (the Wolverines) is they've got Zavier Simpson back, who is such an outstanding point guard. I mean, he's only 6 feet tall but he's such a good defender and a great passer,” Bilas said. “He had Cassius Winston in the league who led the nation in assists and he was right behind him. The battle between those two every time they play is one of my favorite matchups to watch in the game. They are such good players and good leaders and unbelievable fighters.

More: Michigan big men elevate their games doing 'dirty' work with Juwan Howard

“Michigan has got a lot of guys that have to step forward in different roles this year. Jon Teske is going to have to be more of a scorer. Isaiah Livers is going to have to be more of a scorer. I was disappointed that (Franz) Wagner got hurt. That's going to be a difficult thing to overcome, but having that trio is going to be really helpful.”

Outside of Simpson, Teske and Livers, Michigan’s roster has plenty of unproven pieces. Junior guard Eli Brooks saw action in every game last season but played a limited role and averaged 2.5 points and 1.1 assists in 12.9 minutes.

Redshirt junior center Austin Davis couldn’t lock down the backup five role and his minutes eventually became matchup-based. Sophomores Brandon Johns Jr. and Colin Castleton showed flashes at times, while David DeJulius and Adrien Nunez received spotty minutes usually late in games.

Despite all the question marks that come with a team that lost its top three scorers and replaced its winningest head coach with somebody who has no previous head-coaching experience, Bilas is confident Howard will do a “fantastic job.”

“We'll have to see how their young players are able to step into a new system because the one thing with John Beilein going to the NBA, Juwan Howard's system isn't just new to the freshmen, it's new to everybody,” Bilas said. “There's going to be a lot of newness to it, but I think it's going to be really fun. I think as much enjoyment as they got out of playing for John I think they'll really enjoy playing for Juwan.

“I'm really happy for Juwan Howard because he worked his way up the hard way and he's primed for this.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins