Elite is defined as being superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society. By definition, Juwan Howard is exactly that.
He just clinched an outright Big Ten title in year two. He inked the No. 1 recruiting class in the country during the 2021 cycle. He has created a culture that most college coaches can only dream of. And he did all of it during a worldwide pandemic that has spawned two of the weirdest college basketball seasons in the history of the sport.
I've written numerous articles about the culture at Michigan under Howard, his demeanor during press conferences and his ability to run a tight ship while being the epitome of a players' coach. But it somehow doesn't feel like enough. It's truly special what he's been able to do in just two seasons at Michigan yet amazingly, it feels like he's just getting started.
Granted, he inherited a stocked cupboard, a program with a healthy culture already in place and several players who had already won at a very high level — all thanks to John Beilein. Still, Howard has already been able to improve those areas and has Michigan humming along in a way that even Beilein must be impressed, and maybe a little surprised by.
I know I had some reservations when Howard was hired. I didn't think it was a bad hire by any means but I wasn't over the moon when he was announced as Beilein's replacement. Howard had never been a head coach before and wasn't even the top assistant for the Miami Heat. He had never recruited before and he very likely wasn't on any other college's radar. But there was still a lot to like about him in terms of his work ethic, personality, overall basketball track record and of course, his love for the University of Michigan. Still, Beilein was revered in Ann Arbor and by U-M fans and was a joy to cover. And he won, which is obviously the most important aspect of a coach's job. Howard was going to have some really big shoes to fill.
Luckily he wears a size 16.
No matter who was hired, that person was going to be looking up at Beilein for a while, right? How could anyone be as liked and as successful? Even though he had never been a head coach before, Howard did check a lot of boxes and was going to be held in high regard as a former member of the Fab Five and because he's simply a likable dude. From the very first day it felt special. He won the press conference. He won over a few players who were on the fence. He started winning over recruits almost immediately. And now he's won a conference title. He hasn't even completed his second season yet and it just feels like the perfect storm.
After last night's game, Howard now has a 2-1 record against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, which should be 3-1 after Sunday's regular season finale in East Lansing. If you're being honest with yourself, do you see Izzo tipping that record in his favor? I don't. And that speaks to what Howard has been able to do in a very short amount of time. He started recruiting at an elite level right out of the gate, improved on it and now he's also winning at the highest level. That's how great teams stay great.
Michigan now has a shot to win the Big Ten tournament and is being talked about as one of maybe two or three teams who can win the whole damn thing this year. Howard, his seniors and everyone in maize and blue knows they're good enough to do it too. His closing quote after beating Michigan State last night tells you everything you need to know about his mindset.
"Our goal is to be the last team standing in the first week of April and we're still working towards that."