Detroit — While we wait for the real games to return, the crazy games continue. Not as entertaining, not as structured, just as unpredictable.
Juwan Howard just took his first full ride on the spinning wheel of high-stakes recruiting, and Michigan’s second-year coach probably woke up dizzy Tuesday. In the space of 12 hours, the Wolverines lost their two highest-rated targets ever — Joshua Christopher and Isaiah Todd. As the signing period begins today, Howard’s class fell from No. 4 in the national rankings to 13th, and whenever the next season begins, Michigan likely will be out of the top 10.
It’s still a stellar four-member class, still No. 1 in the Big Ten, still ample evidence Howard will be a top recruiter. But for those who wanted him to raise the program’s recruiting profile after John Beilein’s departure, this should serve as a bit of a lesson. When you go after the big fish in college basketball, it takes the right hook and the right bait.
If you consider this a shocking development, you haven’t paid attention. Todd, a five-star forward from North Carolina, has been a strong candidate to play overseas ever since he committed to Michigan but didn’t sign. And Christopher, a five-star guard from California, unabashedly treated his recruitment like a game, saying he wanted everyone to be guessing until the last minute. The last minute came close to midnight, when Christopher confirmed the murmurs and opted for Arizona State, where his brother Caleb plays.
Fans can whine if they wish, but this is the high-risk, high-reward game. It’s what drove Beilein out. It’s what drives Tom Izzo batty. It’s the first taste for Howard, and although he might wince, it’s better to learn quickly, with one stiff swig.
For Michigan, this is a blow from a team-building standpoint, in the short term. It’s not a blow from a program-sustaining standpoint, because Christopher and Todd probably would’ve been gone in a year anyhow.
In one season, Howard discovered what his predecessor experienced virtually every season. Beilein maintained success with all the departures and I suspect Howard will too, with certain adjustments. Beilein used to insist top recruits visit campus before they received an offer, just to see if they’re serious. That eliminated most five-stars. Howard has been more liberal with offers, which isn’t a bad strategy as long as you accept the unpredictability.
Even with the two misses, Michigan has an intriguing class — four-star Zeb Jackson, four-star Hunter Dickinson, four-star Terrance Williams and three-star Jace Howard — assuming they all sign. Getting Jace Howard (son of the coach), was the easy one, but the roster never stops churning.
Howard has been aggressive in his hunt for high-end talent, and his NBA pedigree gives him considerable cachet. But there are many paths to the NBA now, and many different motives for players. That doesn’t mean the Wolverines have to lower their sights. It does mean they have to be prepared for twists and disappointments, amid the occasional victory.
The competition is tough, and sometimes nasty. There are agents, family members’ wishes, the lure of pro leagues, and yes, a few coaches willing to bend the rules. That’s not the suggestion here. Christopher and Todd had solid reasons for their choices, and it’s never easy to compete against family connections or an athlete’s ambitions. Christopher plays with a showman’s flair and has a large social media presence, and he and his father, Laron, have talked about expanding his individual brand.
For college coaches, re-recruiting and retaining can be just as problematic. Players keep leaping into the transfer portal, and while they certainly deserve some control over their career paths, it can force coaches to make difficult scholarship decisions.
Howard needs Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner to stay in Ann Arbor more than ever, but they’re entitled to NBA feedback. Originally, if Michigan had signed all six recruits — in addition to transfer guard Mike Smith — it would have been over the 13-scholarship limit, requiring more roster movement. Now, with David DeJulius and Colin Castleton set to transfer, and Jace Howard likely joining as a walk-on, Michigan is under the limit. You have to wonder if DeJulius would have stayed if he knew Christopher wasn’t coming.
It can be as confusing for the players as it is for the coaches. The Spartans have an incoming class of two — four-stars A.J. Hoggard and Mady Sissoko — and are looking for a transfer point guard, while pursuing four-star guard Karim Mane from Montreal. They’re also waiting to see if Xavier Tillman officially opts for the NBA, and whether Aaron Henry explores it too.
Izzo dislikes the transfer portal because it allows for easy outs, when perseverance might be the best option. A lot of players enter and come out in a worse situation. Izzo doesn’t spend a ton of time on the biggest prizes, but even when he lands someone like Jalen Jackson Jr. or Miles Bridges, roster management is daunting.
“Some years you think you only have one open scholarship, and you might actually have five or six,” Izzo said. “Because somebody is going pro, somebody’s transferring, someone's doing this, someone's doing that. So that means you're constantly recruiting. If you have a big class, you used to sit back and say, oh good, I’m set for a couple years. It doesn't mean anything anymore.”
Izzo has seen it for 25 years. Beilein saw it for 12 years. Howard is seeing it in his first year.
Greg Kampe has coached 36 seasons at Oakland University and sees it as much as anyone. He lost 12 players to the transfer portal the past two years, and says the situation likely will get more volatile. The NCAA is expected to vote May 20 on a one-time waiver proposal that could give transfers immediate eligibility.
Right now, 650 names are in the portal. Kampe suspects it’ll at least double if the waiver passes, as many expect.
“That’s a 100-percent game-changer,” Kampe said. “You no longer build a program. Now you build a team, and you understand that team is short-lived.”
So you try to collect as much talent for the following season, recognizing you’ll lose some and do it all over again. If the transfer waiver passes and more players bail, anyone technically could be a one-and-done.
What happened to Howard’s class isn’t new to college basketball, it’s just new to Michigan. It may be getting old for many, but it’s certainly not going away.