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'We all have to pivot': UM's Juwan Howard adjusts to virtual recruiting

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Recruiting never stops, but it certainly has changed.

The hustle and bustle of college basketball coaches traveling to AAU tournaments across the country. The scenes of staffs spending their summer weekends scouting prospects from the sidelines. The in-person interactions.

All of that disappeared from the recruiting landscape this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving coaches to alter their playbooks and conduct their work virtually.

Juwan Howard

“Like all coaches, we love going out in person and watching the recruits compete, whether it’s high school scholastic games or if it's travel ball with their AAU team,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Wednesday, his first time speaking with local reporters since late March.

“Now we all have to pivot, and Zooms (video conferences) have been the way of life. I've been on a ton of Zooms; I've lost count of how many. That's the new way of embracing the recruitment process.”

Since on the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the NCAA instituted a dead period and suspended in-person recruiting, which has been extended through the end of the year. That means no official visits to college campuses, no visits from coaches to the homes of prospects, no in-person evaluations.

On top of that, the premier AAU circuits — Nike, Adidas and Under Armour — canceled their string of tournaments and major events like the NBPA Top 100 Camp and Peach Jam were wiped out. As a result, staffs have been left to dive into high school film and gather intel from live-streamed events online.

“I think we've all gotten in this space where we have learned to adjust and as Coach Juwan Howard says, 'Embracing the suck,’” assistant coach Saddi Washington told MGoBlueTV in July. “I think what it has done is it’s allowed us to get creative in the way that we go about our business and be a lot more efficient in the way that we recruit.”

That efficiency, Washington explained, has come on two fronts — from a time perspective and a cost perspective.

More: Howard: Michigan to submit Chaundee Brown's waiver request 'soon'

“Instead of having to either fly out to go see a recruit or to fly them in and go through the process of having the visits, we can virtually bring the university and the program to the families' computer screens,” Washington said. “It doesn't replace the personal touch and I think that that's big, especially with our staff. I like to think we all have great personalities that people can feed off of, but I do think that there's some value that's been added to doing business this way."

It also helps that Howard and assistant coach Howard Eisley are more accustomed to the recruiting grind and everything it entails after taking a full spin through a cycle.

Washington noted when the two dropped down from the NBA and were hired last year, it was a “whirlwind” as Howard, a first-time head coach, and Eisley, a nine-year assistant coach in the pros, adjusted to the college level and had to sell themselves to recruits.

“Now us having more of an identity, when we go into these recruiting presentations it's not so much about this is what Michigan is going to look like because we didn't have any material, any game footage or practice footage (last year) to say, 'Hey, this is what you're walking into,’” Washington said. “But now fast forward a year later, we've got all kinds of information that we can feed to our prospects and their families.”

That intel coupled with the relationships the coaching staff has been able to build over video conferences and phone calls has paid dividends in Michigan’s 2021 recruiting efforts.

So far, the Wolverines have received commitments from four-star guards Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin, four-star wing Isaiah Barnes and three-star forward Will Tschetter. Barnes, a Chicago product, committed before ever visiting the campus and Tschetter, who hails from Minnesota, committed after taking his own tour of the university, which was guided via FaceTime by assistant coach Phil Martelli.

Michigan has also been in contention for several top prospects, the most recent being five-star forward Caleb Houstan, who listed the Wolverines among his four finalists on Wednesday.

And even though Howard would prefer to see prospects in person, the pandemic hasn’t stopped his staff from remotely assembling a 2021 recruiting class that ranks No. 6 in the nation, according to 247Sports.

“Fortunate enough, me and my staff, I would say we've done a pretty darn good job of being able to have four commits thus far,” Howard said. “We're still grinding at this time. I was looking forward to watching them (2021 prospects) play because last season I had to hit the ground running and make sure that I get the 2020 class (in place).

“Now the 2021 class, I sort of missed out on identifying all the talent that is out there. But, hey, it is what it is. The most important thing is our health at this moment, so I'm not making any complaints.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins