What a week for Juwan Howard and Michigan.
The unranked Wolverines came into the 2019 Battle 4 Atlantis as somewhat of an afterthought in a stacked field that also included top-10 teams North Carolina and Gonzaga, plus No. 11 Oregon and No. 13 Seton Hall. With Iowa State, Alabama and Southern Miss rounding out the bracket, it was widely considered the best of this year's Thanksgiving week tournaments.
Many expected to see the Tar Heels in the final taking on one of Gonzaga, Oregon or Seton Hall, but Michigan crashed that party by beating the Cyclones in the quarterfinal before dispatching UNC in the semis in a game the Wolverines led by as many as 24.
That set up a final with No. 8 Gonzaga, who outlasted Oregon in an overtime thriller on Thanksgiving night to advance to the championship.
Friday's matchup wouldn't be nearly as close. Michigan picked up where it left off against the Tar Heels with a dominant performance, winning 84–62.
Isaiah Livers led all scorers with 21 points, while big man Jon Teske scored 19, grabbed 15 rebounds and made four blocks. Senior point guard Zavier Simpson joined Teske with a double double himself, totaling 13 points and assists apiece.
The tournament title was an early breakthrough in the coaching career of Howard, who took over the Wolverines this spring after longtime coach John Beilein left for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. The additional departure of three key Michigan players to the NBA left more questions than answers for Howard's team heading into 2019-20, hence it being left out of the AP Top 25 entering this week.
Instead, the Wolverines are now 7-0, with multiple impressive wins already on their résumé—and before the calendar has even hit December.
Asked on the ESPN broadcast after his team's big win over Gonzaga what he's learned in the Bahamas, Howard had a simple answer.
"I learned that I have a great staff that I trust," he said. "I learned that I'm confident in who we are as a group and as a staff. We're a connected group, man. And this is a great example of us being connected and all in."
To win the Battle 4 Atlantis, Michigan had to go through three strong offensive opponents. All three failed to crack 1.0 points per possession on the Wolverines, a sign that the recent defensive mentality that Beilein and former assistant Luke Yaklich fostered still remains in the program.
Michigan's performance against the Zags was particularly impressive. The Bulldogs managed just 0.67 PPP in the first half on Friday, despite coming into the game ranked No. 4 nationally in offensive efficiency. The Wolverines forced Mark Few's team into difficult shots and limited its transition efforts, making sure nothing came easy.
Senior Killian Tillie, who recently returned to the lineup after offseason surgery, was the lone Zag to reach double figures, finishing with 20. Big man Filip Petrusev, who has been off to a superb start to his sophomore season, was crucially held to just nine points, going 4 for 16 from the floor. Instead, Teske won the battle inside on both ends as part of his big night.
Offensively, Michigan cashed in from the outside, draining 12 of its 23 three-point attempts. Livers went 5 for 8 himself, while sophomore David DeJulius shot 3 for 5 from deep off the bench. The Wolverines were hot from three all week and are now shooting 42.4% from three for the season, a promising early development for a team that had preseason questions around whether it had enough offensive firepower to hang with elite teams.
The breakout of Livers, who is averaging 17 points through seven games, and timely contributions of junior Eli Brooks, who had 24 against the Tar Heels, have also been crucial. Simpson and Teske were proven reliable pieces for Michigan even before this season, but it was clear the Wolverines were going to need others to emerge around them.
Another important piece could be freshman Franz Wagner, the younger brother of Moe Wagner. He missed the first four games with a wrist injury but made his debut in the Bahamas and is expected to play a key role going forward.
After the impressive statement they made this week, things don't slow down for Howard and Michigan. The Wolverines will travel to Louisville on Tuesday for their Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, with the Cardinals likely to be the AP No. 1 team in the country after a chaotic week in the sport. Michigan, for the first time this season, will have a well-deserved number next to its name as well.