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Juwan Howard looks back fondly on 'great group of guys' from first season as Michigan's coach

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Juwan Howard had his share of memorable moments in his first season as Michigan’s head coach.

There was his debut against Saginaw Valley State, followed by his first official win over Appalachian State. There was the dominant Bahamas run that netted the Battle 4 Atlantis title and led to a historic jump in the rankings.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard led the Wolverines to a 19-12 record in his first season in Ann Arbor as head coach.

There was his triumphant homecoming to the Chicago area in February’s trip to Northwestern. There was the win over rival Michigan State and emotional home finale that honored seniors Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, the program’s all-time winningest players.

But looking back, Howard said what he’ll remember most from his first year leading his alma mater is the 15 players — from the walk-ons to the starters — he had the privilege to coach.

“Each and every guy playing for one another, enjoying each other’s success, being all in,” Howard said Monday night on the “Inside Michigan Basketball” radio show. “I loved to come to practice every day knowing I’m going to work with a great group of guys that are passionate about playing the game of basketball, wanting to learn more, wanting to know more, are open to learning, accept learning very well.

“They’re a group that loves Michigan. Each and every one of them wants to be a part of the University of Michigan block ‘M,’ and they’ve proven that with how they represented the university.”

That’s what made last week’s double dose of news harder to swallow. The Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were canceled hours apart due to the coronavirus outbreak. Just like that, the season was over.

No more chances to make memories with his team. No opportunity to see how Simpson and Teske would finish out their careers. No shot to see how much noise this Michigan team could make in the postseason.

The tears flowed in the locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Michigan was less than 20 minutes away from facing Rutgers before everything ended abruptly.

“I understood it in the big picture,” Howard said. “At the end of the day, it's about our health.”

But in the days since the Wolverines bused from Indianapolis back to Ann Arbor, plenty has changed.

The athletic department suspended all athletic activities and shut down recruiting for all sports, with no on-campus visits allowed and no off-campus travel by coaches. That protocol runs through the end of the winter term, which is April 21.

The NCAA placed similar ban on all in-person recruiting activities for college coaches in all sports — on and off campus — until at least April 15. Nike, Adidas and Under Armour canceled their travel league games originally scheduled for April, which take place during the only two spring evaluation periods allowed by the NCAA.

It all makes for a longer offseason that Howard is still trying to process and figure out a way to navigate.

“I’m still taking it day by day and regrouping,” Howard said. “There’s a lot of work to be done. I’ve been slowly getting into preparing for this offseason. At the end of the day, I’m hit by it as well. Just like the players, I’m still devastated. It’s still fresh news for me. It’s still disappointing that our season ended like this. I haven’t gone too far into looking to next year."

Rather, Howard said part of his focus now is continuing to learn about the global coronavirus pandemic and doing his best to turn the disappointment into a blessing.

"Adversity teaches us all a lesson. It helps us all grow,” Howard said. “This is a great learning tool for us all, not just our players. It’s a life lesson. I always live by a motto of, 'Embrace the suck.' This is definitely one of (those times)."

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins