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'A great day': Howard elated after Michigan basketball returns to practice

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s 48th birthday might not have been the most memorable of his life, but it was special in its own way.

That’s because Howard got a chance to celebrate with his players and coaching staff as the Wolverines were able to return to the team facilities on Sunday after the athletic department’s two-week pause came to an end.

More:Despite pause, Michigan basketball rises to No. 3 in latest AP rankings

"It was a great day,” Howard said Monday night on the “Inside Michigan Basketball” radio show. “It was great having our first official practice back in the building that we call home and that's Crisler Center. We had a nice hour-and-a-half practice and I took a nice little nap when I got home."

Howard, in his first comments since the 14-day shutdown went into effect on Jan. 23, commended his players for how they handled the stoppage, which he called a challenging process that led to some "very long days."

More:Michigan's Franz Wagner: Two-week layoff is 'definitely weird'

He also said the correct call was made to suspend all athletic activity after cases of the COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant were discovered within the department, even though the men’s basketball team had no positive cases during the season and continued to test negative throughout the layoff. The shutdown was a recommendation from the state health department.

Michigan coach Juwan Howard

"You’re playing and competing at a high level and then to have a pause like that, there's a lot of doubts and questions that roll through your mind and rightfully so,” Howard said. “They (players) had every right to feel the way they felt at times and thinking, ‘Why me?’ At the same time, I always remind them that you've got to control the controllables and this is out of our control.

More:UM men's, women's hoops finding ways to stay connected during shutdown

“The best thing is they've got to trust to the process and the trust comes from (athletic director) Warde Manuel and our president (Mark Schlissel). They have a very tough job. Their job is to always try to keep not only the student-athletes but the staff safe, and they always look at our health being No. 1. You can only appreciate that. Yeah, there are going to be times where you question it like is this the right thing to do? You put yourselves in their shoes. This is a tough decision to make and that decision, looking back on it, was probably the right decision.”

Howard said he reached out to a pair of friends and colleagues — Texas’ Shaka Smart and Cleveland State’s Dennis Gates — for advice on how to handle the pause and stayed busy looking for ways to have his team ready to hit the ground running.

He spent time watching games and taking notes of opponents the Wolverines have yet to face, like Ohio State, Rutgers, Illinois and Iowa. He also looked back at film from this season against conference foes like Wisconsin, which Michigan is scheduled to face on Sunday.

“Where we are right now, we're in a really good place,” Howard said. “Our kids are excited that there's light at the end of the tunnel. We know that we've got to look at this thing like we always have — game by game, not looking ahead of the schedule, keep winning the day, keep testing negative.

"I'm so happy that they listened to the plan as hard as it was. They sacrificed and bought in to just staying the course throughout that process of waiting to return to play.”

According to a program spokesperson, Michigan had individual development sessions with limited contact on Sunday and Monday marked the first full team practice as the Wolverines prepare to return to action after last playing on Jan. 22.

Howard said the plan is to gradually get his players back into playing shape, back into a rhythm and back to their offensive and defensive habits after being in quarantine for two weeks, which he said: “isn’t going to happen overnight.”

As far as the schedule is concerned, Howard didn’t have any updates on what it could look like after the pause caused the team to postpone five straight games.

“Nobody has experienced this before," Howard said. "You just try to manage it the best way you can by making sure that you don't put our players in a situation where you set your team back.

“We're just going to keep practicing and getting ourselves prepared for who our next opponent will be and when we will play them so we can be ready to go out there and compete.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins