Steve Deace

The Thanksgiving semifinals of the Battle for Atlantis was the 1,111th game of Roy Williams illustrious Hall of Fame college head coaching career. He notched his first win ever over a top 10 team in his 33rd game on the sidelines. 

Thursday was only Juwan Howard's sixth game as a college head coach, and that's how long it took him to beat a top 10 team for the first time -- at Williams' expense. 

Thanks mainly to a 19-0 second half run that broke open a close game, the Wolverines defeated No.6 North Carolina, 73-64. It's not only the first marquee victory of the Howard era, but maybe the most impressive win by any Big Ten team so far this young college basketball season. 

Once more, the Wolverines started slow and dug themselves a quick hole, as they did against Iowa State in the tournament opener on Wednesday. Only to then claw their way to a modest lead at halftime, before breaking the game open in the second half. Except this time Michigan did it mostly without star point guard Zavier Simpson, who only played 17 minutes due to foul trouble throughout. 

However, the Michigan bench play shined against the mighty Tar Heels, just as it did against those pesky Cyclones. David DeJulius is  becoming quite the fearless big shot sniper. Colin Castleton is learning to solve his problems with aggression, while still growing into his physique. 

Both of those players barely made a contribution last season, by the way, yet suddenly under Howard's tutelage they are flourishing. DeJulius, in particular, is playing with a totally different mindset and level of confidence, when compared to the limited minutes we saw last season. Whatever Howard and his staff have done with him goes beyond player development. This is a metamorphosis.

And here's something to keep in mind -- the Wolverines have beaten likely NCAA Tournament teams on consecutive days, despite committing a whopping 38 turnovers. That was almost a month's worth of miscues under former Coach John Beilein's. But the Wolverines are still learning Howard's more up-tempo, NBA style. 

Which begs a question that should make future Big Ten rivals shudder: if they're this good while making this many careless mistakes, how good will the Wolverines be a month or two from now once they're more comfortable in a new system?

Plus, it looks like one of those years in college basketball that permits big dreams for unheralded teams, as still unranked Michigan was coming into the season. 

Already the AP No.1 team has lost three times, including twice at home to unranked teams before Thanksgiving for the first time in AP Poll history. Michigan State was handed the Big Ten title before Midnight Madness, yet its Feast Week trip to the Maui Classic didn't exactly inspire. The Spartans lost to Virginia Tech with a new coach, and almost blew a 21-point lead to former assistant Tom Crean's Georgia squad ranked only 67th in KenPom's analytics. 

Meanwhile, Michigan has undoubtedly gotten the attention of the college basketball punditry this week, regardless of what happens in tomorrow's final against No.8 Gonzaga. ESPN's Jimmy Dykes said he thinks the Wolverines are the best team in the Big Ten. His contemporary, Dick Vitale, seemed befuddled in real time while forced to witness the beatdown of a traditional power from his beloved ACC.

Yet Vitale and the rest of the college basketball world are now on notice. Howard is not a coaching novelty act, and the Wolverines aren't rebuilding after losing the top three scorers from last season's 30-win team. 

Oh, and one final thing. The last two winners of the Battle for Atlantis went on to win the NCAA Tournament. 

Comments (1)
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Ron_G_Sr
Ron_G_Sr

Howard thus far is a pleasant surprise. I had no idea he’d be this good of a coach this fast, but he did surround himself with excellent assistants. I’m really happy for him and our beloved Wolverines, because I really thought that with the sudden departure of Coach “B”, that the program might slide back into the dark ages again and I was dreading that, but Coach Howard has done well, thus far, to assuage my fears.


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