'Good for our game': Opposing coaches heap praise on Michigan's Juwan Howard
It didn’t take long for Michigan to open some eyes and build a solid resume under first-year coach Juwan Howard.
Through the first six weeks of the season, the Wolverines have gotten off to an 8-3 start that's featured a Battle 4 Atlantis tournament title, a top-5 ranking and a winning mark over a seven-game stretch against top-50 teams.
As Michigan has racked up the victories, Howard has received no shortage of complimentary words from his coaching peers, both in the Big Ten and outside the conference.
“I think he’s great to have in our game,” Gonzaga’s Mark Few said last month. “I think that it’s great that he’s with us. I think it’s a really important time and it’s good to have a good, young coach like him. He’s doing a great job. They run some great stuff.”
That showed in the Bahamas, where Howard guided the Wolverines to a convincing 82-64 win over the Bulldogs in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game — which remains Gonzaga’s only loss and lowest scoring total on the season.
Few’s praise came one day after North Carolina’s Roy Williams sang a similar tune. After the Tar Heels were thumped in a 73-64 loss to the Wolverines, Williams commended Howard for the way he seemingly picked up from where former Michigan coach John Beilein left off.
“The most impressive thing to me is that he has taken some of the guys that played for John Beilein, that were important to John. They guarded like crazy, they shared the ball, they shot 3-point shots,” Williams said. “Juwan has embraced that and hasn’t shied away from trying to be the man that can make every decision.”
Howard made it clear during Big Ten basketball media day he was going to do things his way and wasn’t going to try to imitate Beilein’s system.
Williams noted that while Michigan continues to be one of the better defensive teams in the nation, Howard’s flavor is most noticeable on the offensive end, where he has incorporated many more ball screens for senior guard Zavier Simpson that are “hard to cover.”
“I think he's got them buying into little changes that he’s made and he’s confident enough that he’s not afraid if somebody says, ‘Well, you’re letting them do what John did by all the 3s,’” Williams said. “I think he’s going to be good for our game and good for college basketball. He’s going to be his own man and do what he wants to do, and I think that is a very good strength.”
For Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, the one thing that stands out the most isn't anything that Howard is doing differently. It's that the Wolverines continue to display the same type of unselfishness under Howard as they did under Beilein.
That was evident in Michigan’s 103-91 win over Iowa in the Big Ten opener when six Wolverines scored at least 12 points and no player attempted more than 10 shots.
So far this season, there has been a balanced shot distribution among Michigan’s four starters who have played in every game: junior forward Isaiah Livers (114 shot attempts), Teske (107), junior guard Eli Brooks (102) and Simpson (100).
And since freshman wing Franz Wagner has been added to the mix, each starter is averaging between 9.6 to 14.6 points per game.
“I don't know that there's a huge difference in the sense of how they play,” McCaffery said. “They move the ball. They share the ball. They defend. If you do those things, then you're typically going to be successful.
“Juwan is a smart guy. He's going to come in and insist that those guys do those same things. And they've already been instilled by Coach Beilein. Give him credit for that.”
The rave reviews haven’t been limited to opposing coaches who have been beaten by Michigan.
Louisville’s Chris Mack, who handed Howard the first loss of his coaching career, said Howard’s longevity in the NBA and his decision to bring in Phil Martelli as associate head coach speak volumes about the type of person Howard is.
"I think the humility that he has to hire a guy like Phil Martelli, a lot of coaches wouldn't do (because they’d) feel like they're getting second-guessed. You've got a guy that has been through the wars and has coached a ton of games,” Mack said. “Obviously if you last in the league as a player for (19) years, you have high character because they weed jerks out and you have to have a mind for the game because your body breaks down.”
Mack also spoke highly of Howard’s ability to develop his players, which is something he earned a reputation for while working with the Miami Heat's big men during his six seasons as an assistant coach.
For a Michigan team that lost its top three scorers, the Wolverines haven't had any issues replacing that production. Brooks and Livers have taken on larger scoring roles while sophomores Colin Castleton, David DeJulius and Brandon Johns Jr. have all gone from little-used reserves to key bench pieces.
“You can see the respect level that his players have. They play hard for him,” Mack said. “They've got good talent. Some guys that were role players a year ago have really stepped up and became even better players. So, he's doing a lot right.”
Illinois’ Brad Underwood pointed out coaching changes always come with uncertainty. And when that person hasn’t been at the college level in a long time, that only adds to the unease.
That was the case with Howard, who returned to his alma mater without any head coaching experience on his resume. Many questioned his ability to coach and whether he knew his X's and O's, even though he was on the short list for several NBA head jobs.
But given what Michigan has done over the first month of the season, Underwood said all those concerns should be washed away by now.
“His reputation among NBA people was off the charts. Everybody said he’s going to be a terrific coach and there’s no doubt about that,” Underwood said. “He’s doing things a little different in terms of what John did, but they’re really good and they’re really well-coached…I was extremely challenged as a coach understanding what all they do and how they do it.
“He’s done an unbelievable job.”