Wojo: Juwan Howard’s Wolverines lost a leader, but haven’t lost their way

One reason Michigan is in the Sweet 16 is Juwan Howard is proving…

Wojo: Juwan Howard's Wolverines lost a leader, but haven't lost their way 1

In basketball, it’s not the first move that matters. It’s the next move, and the adjustment to the next move. It’s adaptability and flexibility, especially while navigating a COVID environment where everything can change.

The Wolverines know it as well as any team. And one reason they’re in the Sweet 16 is Juwan Howard is proving adept at calming the chaos. He doesn’t want to hear this because he prefers to credit his players, but in his second season, his team is taking on his persona.

Competitive. Confident. Adjusting on the fly.

By the time the Wolverines face Florida State on Sunday, they’ll be deep into their third week sequestered in Indianapolis. They’ll be facing another big, defense-minded team, and they’ll again be without their senior leader, Isaiah Livers, recovering from a foot injury. They’ll again be a fashionable pick not to survive the weekend, with Alabama also lurking.

When the Tournament started, Michigan was branded the No. 1 Seed Most Likely to Stumble, and instead Illinois took the hit. Without Livers, the Wolverines aren’t as deep and athletic but withstood hard-charging LSU. Now here comes hard-charging FSU, the tallest team in the country with an average height of 6-6, led by senior guard M.J. Walker and its own 7-footer, Balsa Koprivica.

With so many games crammed into the past few weeks, stamina is a test for every team. This should be the NCAA Tournament motto: Weather or Wither, whether you like it or not.

In Livers’ absence, the Wolverines are weathering with other players taking on larger roles, notably Brandon Johns Jr. You’ll hear quips and coachspeak from Howard, and you’ll hear him praise his players effusively. You will not – almost never – hear him complain or express concern about a schedule, an injury, or an opponent.

Of course, the Seminoles present a huge challenge, right?

“We face a lot of different teams throughout the year,” Howard said, vaguely. “Yes, their height and wingspan are pretty long. Still gotta play the game no matter what. We’re looking forward to the competition. We’ll be ready to roll on Sunday.”

Maybe it’s the perspective from being a college star and an 18-year NBA player, and now a first-time head coach who clearly was more prepared than some people realized. Just look at the tricky adjustments he’s had to make in two years.

Last season was cut short by the pandemic. He lost two key seniors, dove into a portal pool he was just learning about, and plucked two ideal transfers, Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown Jr. Despite zero COVID positive tests, Michigan was shut down for 23 days by the state health system, then returned as if nothing happened.

But the theory is, the Livers injury is just too much, and honestly, it might be too much. If not for clutch performances by Eli Brooks and Brown against the Tigers, the Wolverines would be home. But as roles shift, Johns, a 6-8 junior, is starting to fit in. In three starts, he has 15 rebounds and scored a season-high 11 points against Texas Southern.

“I think my confidence is at an all-time high,” Johns said. “Obviously it’s super tough, a season-ending injury like that, so we’ve been focusing on trying to keep his head up and try to keep positive. We have a great team, a lot of talent, so we just try to use everything we have, every man that we have.”

Every method, too. Howard has mixed up his defenses, using an effective zone at times or slapping on a half-court press. When Smith was bothered by LSU’s big guards, Brooks picked up ball-handling duties.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, one of Howard’s mentors, believes in similar principles of defense and toughness. When the teams met in the 2018 Elite Eight, Michigan grinded out a 58-54 victory, and you might see a similar outcome this time.

Off the court, Howard doesn’t voice complaints and doesn’t want to hear them. When Hunter Dickinson posted a photo of his meager breakfast, he backtracked the next day. The NCAA’s strict bubble has worked for the most part, but the confinement surely can be stifling.

Players have been able to use Victory Field, the minor league ballpark across from the hotel, for spirited rounds of badminton. There was a team excursion to the zoo and a widely embraced trip to Top Golf. They play cards and video games and do schoolwork, while mostly confined to their rooms.

If the Wolverines got a little bored and stir-crazy, it wouldn’t be a surprise. They’ve been in Indy longer than any team, starting with the Big Ten tournament. Ask Howard if it’s tedious, and he practically laughs.

“It’s been fun, the perfect time of the season,” he said. “The grind has been great. It’s not time to be looking and begging for sleep. We’ll get our rest, hopefully the second week in April. … I’m not afraid to say it – the NCAA has done a great job making sure this has come to fruition.”

That’s the balance between business and fun that Howard is determined to strike. He’ll dance with his players after a big win because that’s his personality and that’s what he preaches – enthusiastic effort. During a team meeting earlier this year, he stopped the tape to point out two bench players loudly cheering their teammates, contributing in ways not always recognized.

I recently asked Phil Martelli, the long-time St. Joseph’s coach who has fit seamlessly as Howard’s associate head coach, what’s unique about this team.

“It’s flat-out and simple – balance,” Martelli said. “On the court, we’re not an offensive team, we’re not a defensive team, we’re a balanced team. We’re not an inside scoring team, we’re not an outside scoring team, we’re balanced. Emotionally, psychologically and basketball-wise, it’s a balanced group. Never once has Juwan thrown his hands in the air and said, ‘Oh I can’t believe we’re out for three weeks, oh I can’t believe we’re playing Iowa on a Thursday and we have to get ready for Indiana.’ It really is a pleasure to be in that environment. There’s a joy about this day and only this day.”

Howard jokes about the daily nasal-swab test and the excitement when everyone passes. He talks very little about the Livers injury because there’s nothing to belabor. Is that emotional balance the reason the Wolverines are in the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight Tournament? Not fully. They have skilled players and a 7-foot freshman force in Dickinson.

But as we’re seeing, Howard’s experience on every level can be particularly valuable now. After all, he made three Sweet 16 appearances as a player with the Wolverines.

“He’s really helpful because he knows how it goes,” Johns said. “He gives us advice when we need it, knows what to say when we’re feeling down on ourselves or when it feels like a struggle. His main advice – just stay calm and stay confident.”

Just roll with it, as long as the roll can go. A simple message for complex times, a way to maintain balance for the next obstacle, because there’s always a next obstacle.


bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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