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'The guy is really special': Analysts laud Juwan Howard for job well done in first year as Michigan coach

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

During Juwan Howard’s introductory news conference last May, Tim McCormick remembers one thought running through his mind.

“I was thinking to myself, 'Juwan, you have no idea what's coming,'” recalled McCormick, a former Michigan standout and NBA veteran who works as a pro and college basketball analyst.

“The basket is still 10 feet high and the balls are the same size, but it's not even the same game.”

Out of Michigan's 17 coaches in program history, Juwan Howard's 61.3% win percentage in his first season ranks seventh.

That’s because Howard was returning to the college level for his first head-coaching job after spending the past 25 years in the NBA. He was leaving a world where it’s all basketball all the time and entering one filled with NCAA rules, academic requirements, recruiting and different social challenges.

McCormick’s initial concerns gradually washed away over the next 10 months as he watched Howard juggle all the responsibilities and guide Michigan — a team that lost its top three scorers from a year ago — to a 19-12 record before the postseason was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was impressed with the way he was able to process information, how to communicate, how to build a staff, how to motivate, how to make in-game adjustments,” McCormick told The Detroit News. “It just was really impressive to me.”

McCormick isn’t the only college basketball analyst who had high marks for the job Howard did this past season. ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, a two-time ACC Coach of the Year, thought Howard’s move from the pros to the college ranks was seamless.

Greenberg credited Howard’s readiness for the role to the six seasons he was shaped and molded as an assistant coach on Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat staff.

“The easiest part of the transition for former NBA guys is coaching,” Greenberg said. “The hardest part is the business of college basketball, and I think he's done an amazing job understanding the business of college basketball. When you work in the Heat organization, you understand the work ethic it takes to be successful. You understand the discipline. You understand having a plan. You understand staying on task. You understand accountability.

“I just think the guy is really special. I think he's got a great presence about him. I think he's demanding, but he does it in his own way with his own personality. I think he very much understands trying to figure out ways to put players in position to play to their strengths.”

Before the season, ESPN’s Jay Bilas said a top-five finish in the Big Ten would’ve been an “extraordinarily good” first year for Howard. The Wolverines fell short of that with a 10-10 mark and ninth-place finish in arguably the deepest and most competitive conference in the country.

Still, Michigan had its moments, both good and bad, throughout the campaign. There was the 7-0 start and dominant Battle 4 Atlantis title run. There was the historic jump in the national rankings and wins over Gonzaga, Creighton and Michigan State.

There was the 2-6 start in Big Ten play and the crushing finishes against Oregon, Illinois and Ohio State. There was the stretch where the Wolverines lost seven of 10 and dropped four in a row, which was the program’s longest losing streak in five seasons.

And there were the injuries to freshman wing Franz Wagner and junior forward Isaiah Livers as well as the one-game suspension for senior guard Zavier Simpson. Michigan went 13-6 when Livers played a full game and Howard had his desired starting lineup — junior guard Eli Brooks, senior center Jon Teske, Simpson, Wagner and Livers — available for 16 of the 31 contests.

“The Big Ten Conference wears you down. It can be unforgiving,” Big Ten Network’s Stephen Bardo said. “When you drop six of seven or you drop five of six and you're not used to losing like that, that can be difficult…And you're going to get schooled. I don't care what coach you are. Coming into the Big Ten, these coaches are tacticians and they make adjustments very well in games, so you're going to get a Ph.D. your first year coaching in this conference.

“Under those circumstances, with Isaiah Livers being injured in the teeth of the season, I thought (Howard) handled it well.”

By the end of it, the Wolverines finished in the top 30 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies. They also ranked among the nation’s best at taking care of the ball and limiting 3-point attempts for the fourth straight season.

All that happened with Michigan tweaking its style of play — more ball screens, upped pace and different defensive coverages — under Howard and grinding through the nation’s toughest schedule, per KenPom.  

“I thought (Howard) acquitted himself extraordinary well,” Bilas said. “Obviously the injuries were very difficult to deal with, but his team performed at a high level when they were all together and they kept it together when they had their best players out.

“He struck the right tone and did the right things the whole year. There wasn't a time where I wasn't impressed."

There were questions about Howard’s ability to coach entering the season, given this was his first head job at any level. Understandably, there were some bumps in the road. There were rough patches with the defense and times where the rotations and substitution patterns were questionable.

But Bardo, Bilas and Greenberg said Howard showed poise, kept his composure and didn’t look like a rookie head coach. Howard, though, was recognized as such as a finalist for the Joe B. Hall Award, which is given to the top first-year coach in Division I college basketball.

“I always find it interesting that people who have never coached feel like they can judge coaches,” Bilas said. “You're ultimately judged by winning and losing. Juwan won at a high level and had his team ranked in the top five when they were healthy, and they were on the upswing toward the end of the year when they got healthy again. To have disruptions in continuity due to injury is not easy to deal with.”

Greenberg commended Howard for how he dealt with the pressure and expectations that came with replacing John Beilein, the team’s all-time winningest coach who was well respected across the sport, and sustaining the program's recent stretch of success.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Howard wasn’t walking into something he didn’t understand. He was returning to his alma mater and taking over a program he gave his blood, sweat and tears to.

“But just because he loves the university doesn't mean he's going to do a great job,” Greenberg said. “He takes it personally and you can see that in his approach to the job.”

That showed both on and off the court, starting from the moment Howard made his first foray into the recruiting game at the National Basketball Players Association Top 100 Camp last summer.

According to McCormick, who serves as the camp’s director, Howard “looked like a million bucks” and carried himself professionally as he evaluated high school prospects throughout the multi-day event.

“For a lot of coaches, it was a social activity,” McCormick said. “They were shaking hands. They wanted to be seen. Juwan had a plan. He had his staff there. They all sat on a different court and Juwan was not interested in socializing at all.”

Since then, Howard has proven he can recruit — as evident by Michigan’s fourth-ranked 2020 class by 247Sports — and has turned Ann Arbor into a destination for blue-chip prospects. However, Howard's success will be determined by his recruiting and coaching over time.

McCormick estimated 10 percent of college coaches regularly win because of their X’s and O’s and intuitiveness, 80 percent are sound and stick around, and 10 percent get outcoached and don’t last long. While it’s too early to tell where Howard stands, he’s at least off to a promising start.

“I was overwhelmed with how solid he was in every area,” McCormick said. “I don't think that there's much that I would say he made a mistake here or he did that wrong there. He is so far advanced from what I anticipated.”

Michigan coaching debuts

►Juwan Howard (2019-20) — 19-12

►John Beilein (2007-08) — 10-22

►Tommy Amaker (2001-02) — 11-18

►Brian Ellerbe (1997-98) — 25-9

►Steve Fisher (1989-90) — 23-8

►Bill Frieder (1980-81) — 19-11

►Johnny Orr (1968-69) — 13-11

►Dave Strack (1960-61) — 6-18

►William Perigo (1952-53) — 6-16

►Ernest McCoy (1948-49) — 15-6

►Osborne Cowles (1946-47) — 12-8

►Bennie Oosterbaan (1938-39) — 11-9

►Frank Cappon (1931-32) — 11-6

►George Veenker (1928-29) — 13-3

►E.J. Mather (1919-20) — 10-13

►Elmer Mitchell (1917-18) — 6-12

►G.D. Corneal (1908-09) — 1-4

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins