Wojo: Juwan Howard’s fierce, undefeated Michigan team is capable of special things

Howard and the 11-0 Wolverines, who are playing with an NBA mentality, have…

Wojo: Juwan Howard’s fierce, undefeated Michigan team is capable of special things

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Wojo: Juwan Howard's fierce, undefeated Michigan team is capable of special things 1

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UM’s Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Austin Davis, Juwan Howard on 77-54 win over Wisconsin

Michigan’s Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, Austin Davis, Juwan Howard talk about Tuesday’s 77-54 win over Wisconsin.

The Detroit News

No laying low now, no wondering if Michigan has the pieces and persistence to sustain its roll. The Wolverines officially introduced themselves to the rest of college basketball with a defensive demolition that was breathtaking, even statement-making.

It might take Wisconsin a while to catch its wind again. The Wolverines showed off their defense and relentlessness, and vaulted themselves into all the championship conversations, from the Big Ten on up. It’s still early, of course, but the No. 7 Wolverines are 11-0 after pummeling the No. 9 Badgers 77-54 Tuesday night with such ferocity, you can’t help but overreact.

The Wolverines led by 40 at one point, unleashing an astounding 43-6 run against a Wisconsin team that was 10-2 and a league favorite. Juwan Howard won’t overreact, which is part of his success and his appeal. He doesn’t tout his team but doesn’t shy from the growing possibilities either. Remember when some wondered if Michigan was Top-25 caliber? Remember when people wondered if Howard, with no head-coaching experience, could maintain the culture and characteristics of John Beilein’s teams?

He has maintained and expanded in his second year, an extraordinary job that many didn’t see coming. Yes, it’s an unusual season, with no arenas packed with fans. Yes, there is plenty of basketball ahead (hopefully). But in the midst of a pandemic, when anything can veer at any moment, Howard and the Wolverines have something special percolating. He has a team playing with an NBA mentality and a collegiate feel — all-business running the offense and defense, all-enthusiasm in every other way.

The Wolverines are generating their own energy, from Franz Wagner’s radically improved defense, to point guard Mike Smith’s bullish style, to 7-foot freshman Hunter Dickinson’s lane-clearing tenacity. The attitude and defensive disposition start with senior Isaiah Livers, who blocked Wisconsin’s first shot of the game and then flushed a dunk. Near the end, he raced the length of the floor to block a layup attempt when the score was 75-45.

“It’s the way we’re taught in practice, we have a couple drills called hunger games,” said Livers, who had 13 points, six rebounds and three blocks. “There’s no fouls, no calls, no out of bounds. You’re fighting for a rebound, fighting for a loose ball, you’re fighting for every bucket you get. We call it hunger games for a reason. Only the strong survive. For competitors only. That’s our motto.”

Burning desire

Complacency is hunted down and stamped out. Players reference last season, when they were 7-0, then lost eight of 12. You can go back to Beilein’s final season, when they started 17-0 and were ranked second and lost at Wisconsin. In fact, the Wolverines’ last loss in the Crisler Center was to the Badgers on Feb. 27, 2020, and they had dropped eight of the past 11 meetings in Ann Arbor.

Six undefeated teams remain in the nation and Michigan stands, for the moment, among the top three with Gonzaga and Baylor. In a highly competitive conference, Wisconsin was supposed to be the highly competitive test that Michigan hadn’t faced yet. Oops. The experienced, sure-handed Badgers — they start three fifth-year seniors — committed 10 turnovers and shot 31%. Leading scorer D’Mitrik Trice scored 20 but had to work for everything, and pesky Brad Davison shot 1-for-8.

“We’ve got a lot of offensive weapons, but locking up on defense is what really gets us going,” said Wagner, who had 15 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. “It takes people to lock in and buy in to what we want to do, and we got a lot of people who do that.”

Power source

With every steal and block, the players on Michigan’s bench leaped and yelled and celebrated, creating their own unique cauldron. It’s a snapshot of the fun, yet fierce atmosphere Howard wants. Energy vampires — those who kill the joy for selfish reasons — are not allowed.

“It’s so inspiring, just hearing the bench, they’re part of this team,” Howard said. “We don’t want to have those energy vampires on our team that just suck all the energy out. They’re just I I I, me me me, and we don’t have a group like that.”

It takes a dagger to kill a vampire, or so I’ve heard, and the Wolverines have their share. They play tough and loose at the same time and possess enough depth, eight deep now that Austin Davis has returned from injury, that no dares let up. Somehow, after losing his center (Jon Teske) and point guard (Zavier Simpson) to graduation, Howard has pieced together a combination just as cohesive in Dickinson and Smith. Somehow, with two transfers and several freshmen, Michigan is exhibiting impressive chemistry.

There will be more tests ahead and the Wolverines keep hearing that, keep acknowledging that and keep answering. They hadn’t faced a ranked team until 10 days ago. Now they’ve beaten three in a row — Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin — by 19, 25 and 23. If that sounds unheard of, well it is, the first team in college basketball history to beat three consecutive ranked opponents by 19 or more. (No, I didn’t dig up that quirky stat myself).

Late in the first half, the lead was only 26-23 and a tense battle was brewing. Then Michigan buried the Badgers with a wave of blocks and steals and 3-point shots, and by midway through the second half the score was 69-29. On the ESPN broadcast, Dan Dakich could not believe what he was seeing, the type of performance that’ll stir all sorts of attention.

Howard talked about the Wolverines no longer flying under the radar — and that was before this game. The challenge will grow, and they’re yet to play anybody of note on the road, although they visit Minnesota on Saturday. The tug between confidence and complacency is constant and ever-evolving.

“Oh man, I hope my guys don’t get too high on that, it’s still early in the season,” Howard said. “We’re not here to try to break any records. Our goal is to be the last team standing on a Monday night in April.”

You hope college basketball can get that far, through all the COVID obstacles. If it does, it’s becoming clear the Wolverines could get there too.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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