Spat with Juwan Howard was coach 'holding me accountable,' Michigan's Isaiah Livers says

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Isaiah Livers has three father figures in his life: his dad, his stepdad and coach Juwan Howard. He gets into arguments with all three of them.

That showed when Big Ten Network cameras captured the senior forward getting into a verbal spat with Howard during a media timeout late in the first half of Sunday’s overtime win against Oakland.

But Livers dismissed the notion that it was a heated moment.

Isaiah Livers (2) downplayed the verbal exchange TV cameras caught between him and coach Juwan Howard, saying it's just how the two communicate.

"He was holding me accountable,” Livers said. “He was just challenging me and that's how me and coach are. Weirdly enough, that's how we communicate. We argue in practice, we go at it during games, we go at it during scrimmages. It doesn't matter. He just wants me to be a great player and I respect him for that.”

Michigan led Oakland, 29-25, at the time of the exchange, which happened at the 3:43 mark of a frustrating half that saw the Wolverines commit 15 of their 20 turnovers.

As Michigan broke the huddle, Howard slammed a clipboard and started exchanging words with Livers. Up to that point, Livers had six points on three shot attempts, two assists and one turnover.

"He told me to play harder, get on the ground, grab the 50-50 balls, rebound, little things like that,” Livers said. “In the middle of game, got challenged, that's how we go at it. I said, ‘I got you coach.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Wassup?’ ‘Yeah, all right. I got you.’ ‘Trust me.’ Stuff like that. I know he trusts me a long way and wants me to be a great basketball player. That’s it.”

Whether or not that was the actual content, it seemed to light a fire under Livers. He scored 10 points in the second half and six more in overtime to help Michigan avoid disaster in the 81-71 win. He finished with a game-high 22 points, four blocks, three assists and three rebounds while shooting 8-for-12 from the field and 5-for-7 from 3-point range.

Howard declined to give his account of what was said during that timeout, stating "that's between Isaiah and I." Instead, he rattled off Livers’ final stat line.

“I think it was a nice little spark plug he needed to respond with the performance he did,” Howard said. “It's great that I get an opportunity to empower young men to go out there and be the best version of themselves. Isaiah rose to the occasion.”

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Freshman forward Terrance Williams was next to Livers during the timeout. He and fifth-year senior center Austin Davis both appeared to prevent Livers from moving toward Howard during the verbal confrontation.

Like Livers, Williams wouldn’t characterize it as a heated conversation.

“It was good basketball talk,” Williams said. “(Howard) just wanted to hold us accountable. That's all he was doing was holding us accountable, each and every one of us. Even those that were cheering on the bench who weren't cheering from those making the turnovers in the game, he was holding everybody accountable. He's making it known."

Freshman center Hunter Dickinson added it’s the type of in-game coaching he expected to receive from Howard when he committed.

“I would be disappointed if he wasn't holding us to that standard,” Dickinson said. “We know that Juwan demands a lot from us, but he doesn't demand more than we can handle. He knows our limits. He knows what we can do. He knows when we're playing soft and we're not playing together. In those timeouts, he was really challenging us to play tougher and give us everything we had.”

In the end, the approach seemed to work with Livers, who noted Sunday's exchange is just par for the course with the leading men in his life.

“Me and Coach Howard go at it,” Livers said. “He says he's our father and we're his sons. Literally he's like my other father. We butt heads. I butt heads with my fathers, too.

“Coach Howard is a father figure and he holds me accountable. He just wants me to be a great basketball player and I want to do that for him.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins