There's Really Just One Takeaway From Another Road Loss

Steve Deace

The margin for error on the road in the Big Ten is already microscopic, and it's made even smaller when questionable coaching decisions lead to self-inflicted wounds.

This was not Juwan Howard's best day. 

Rest assured, Howard is off to great start in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are on pace to make the NCAA Tournament, and he's on track to have the top recruiting class in the Big Ten. And earlier this season I wrote about how his in-game adjustments made the difference in a big non-conference win against Creighton. 

With all that said, though, from a coaching perspective his Sunday was definitely a forgettable rookie performance. 

Howard was known as a defensive whiz assistant in the NBA. Well, apparently in that star-driven league it's considered great defense to let the stars go off. But this is college basketball, with a longer shot clock, less game minutes, and fewer possessions. And to put it bluntly, there isn't anyone considered a great defensive coach in this sport that would just sit passively by, and let each opponent's best scorer go off as the Wolverines do. And once more, it's not just the bigs, it's every star player. 

Once the film was out on what Iowa's Luka Garza did to the Wolverines in a game Michigan won despite giving up 90+ points, opposing coaches have all emulated it. Dana Altman did it with his outstanding point guard Payton Pritchard, who scored 13 straight points down the stretch to lead the Ducks to a win in Ann Arbor. Cassius Winston had a career-high last weekend. The same Winston who had nine turnovers at Purdue on Sunday. Trevion Williams almost single-handedly led Purdue to a win at Crisler on Thursday. And Sunday it was time for Daniel Oturu, probably the most gifted post player in the league, to post his career-high and impress NBA scouts. 

This strategy makes no sense. No other top program in college basketball would do it, and there's a reason for that. This isn't the NBA, where each team has multiple shot makers on the floor at the same time. And no, this isn't the same as John Beilein not doubling Purdue's third-best player two years ago in the post. That decision was made to avoid creating open looks for even more gifted scorers, but Howard is stubbornly permitting opponents to simplify their games. Just simply get the ball to our best player and let him go. 

This has also relegated Jon Teske, the best defensive center in this league last season, to a defensive nothing burger. He's hung out to dry too often, and then rotates too late to intimidate dribble drives. 

The final straw was right after Michigan took back the lead in the final minutes on Sunday. Howard's defensive philosophy forced Brandon Johns Jr. to be isolated on Oturu. Even a mediocre coach like Richard Pitino knows enough to take advantage of that mismatch. That's the coaching equivalent of throwing the ball away or getting a silly reach-in foul 30 feet from the basket. Or defending K.J. Hamler with an in-the-box safety and 50 yards of green grass. 

You have to wonder if veteran assistants like Phil Martelli and Saddi Washington, the latter of whom was here for the defensive evolution under Beilein, are able to get through to Howard that this dog won't hunt. Ironically, Howard's director of player personnel, Jay Smith, was an assistant at Michigan when Howard played here. Back when the Wolverines were known as one of the best double-down defensive teams in college basketball. 

It's quite possible Michigan won't win a single road game in this league except at Northwestern playing like this. Heck, you're not winning that often on the road in this league even if you don't, if we're being honest. But when it's already tough enough, your head coach can't make decisions that make it mission impossible.

And then there were the substitution patterns that made no sense at times. For example, Adrien Nunez has provided Michigan nothing against meaningful competition all season, and yet he was inexcusably taking minutes away from an effective David DeJulius at the end of the first half. Right when, not coincidentally, the Golden Gophers went on a run to erase the lead Michigan had throughout the first 15 minutes of action. Howard mystifyingly took DeJulius out after he made two first half threes for Nunez, and left him on the bench so long he was out of rhythm and didn't make another shot in the game.  

Players have bad games. Refs have bad games. Sunday the head coach had a bad game. If he were a player, he'd be running extra suicides next practice. 

After all, if I had told you beforehand Michigan would make six more threes, hold its own on the boards, and only commit eight turnovers, what would you have predicted the outcome to be? That's a game you have to win, and the Wolverines didn't mainly because questionable strategy just gave it away.