Basketball isn’t at the forefront of Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s mind nowadays. Far from it.
With the coronavirus outbreak grinding the sports world to a halt and upending daily life across the globe, Howard’s focus since his team’s season came to a premature end has been guiding the Wolverines through the current health crisis.
During a teleconference call with reporters on Thursday, Howard said everyone on the team is healthy and no one has had to be tested for coronavirus yet.
"So far, so good. Everyone is fine,” Howard said. “I'm just keeping my prayers and staying on my knees that stays consistent. We're up against a big fight here and this is not an easy process. I'm going to keep washing my hands, as well as I know my players will try to stay healthy and clean and safe.
“This is our first time dealing with this, so all this is new to all of us.”
Michigan’s season, like many college basketball teams across the nation, ended abruptly on March 12. The Wolverines were roughly 20 minutes away from tipping off against Rutgers in the conference tournament before the Big Ten called off the rest of the event. The NCAA followed suit later that day, canceling both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Howard noted it was unfortunate the Wolverines didn’t get a chance to finish out the season and play in the two postseason tournaments. But in the aftermath of it all, Howard’s final message to his team had little to do with how things ended. Instead, it centered around a more pressing issue — their well-being.
“As far as basketball goes, they know my heart is with them and the love and passion I have for each one of them,” Howard said. “But right now, my focus is making sure that everyone is safe and healthy during the process of what we're dealing with this COVID-19 pandemic.”
After the team bused back to Ann Arbor from Indianapolis, the coaching staff met with each player on March 14. With in-person instruction canceled and the university suggesting students go home, the coaches went over how players would travel if they were leaving and how they would handle finishing classes.
According to Howard, the majority of the players have left campus and only a few remain in Ann Arbor. Howard is back home in Miami with his family, assistant coach Phil Martelli returned to the Philadelphia area and assistant coach Howard Eisley opted to bring his family to Ann Arbor instead of meeting them in New York.
Despite the distance that’s separating everyone, Howard said he’s been keeping the team together and staying in touch by FaceTime, Zoom and phone.
“We're still a family,” Howard said. “Our staff is working hard communicating with our players. When I say staff, it’s not just only coaches but the extension of staff — our trainers, strength coach, our player of personnel. We all have been in great communication with everyone.
“This is all new to us, so we're scrambling. We're learning through the process and seeing how we can make sure we're giving the support that each and every one us needs during this moment. I'm making sure that I'm talking to the staff every week…We have a group text and we have with everyone on it. We're always giving nice motivational talks or quotes to inspire and keep all of us uplifted.”
During the 15-minute teleconference call, Howard chose to keep his focus on the present and reiterated basketball matters pale in comparison to the rising coronavirus numbers.
He spoke about how junior forward Isaiah Livers and freshman wing Franz Wagner are evaluating their NBA options but not much else. He declined to answer a question about the team’s scholarship situation — the Wolverines are currently one over the limit with nine returning players and five incoming freshmen — and any possible roster attrition.
When asked if he thought the virus was going to have any potential impact on next month’s signing period, Howard expressed he was more concerned with the current “life and death situations” than what lies ahead.
“Let's get through what we're dealing with right now,” Howard said. “Let's just make sure that our prayers are with all our families and that everyone can stay safe and healthy. Last but not least, let's be very thankful for all the medical folks that are working in hospitals, doing all the groundwork, being able to put in all the long hours to fight this pandemic that we're facing at this moment. I'm very thankful of all the responders who have been out there on the frontlines dealing with this situation right here."
Howard emphasized this is uncharted territory for everyone, not just the sports world, and his full attention is on navigating his team through this uncertain time.
"I've been trying to do my best as far as being supportive,” Howard said. “More supportive as far as when it comes to everyone's health and safety and then support them with their academics. Basketball has been the last thing that's been on my mind. It's the last thing I've been talking about with our players.
“That basketball part, they'll get a chance to play it someday. But right now, it's about their health and that's been the main focal point at this moment. This is a situation we all are dealing with right now that's bigger than basketball.”