As the No. 1 Michigan Wolverines prepare to face the No. 11 UCLA Bruins tonight for a shot at the Final Four, it feels like a good time to just take a pause and appreciate all that the basketball ball team has provided to Michigan fans during the 2020-21 season.
Early in the season, the Wolverines had found themselves unranked within what would prove to be one of the toughest conferences in all of college basketball. By the time the regular season had come to an end, the Wolverines were ranked No. 4 in the country, had captured the Big Ten regular season championship and would earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993.
Leading the charge was second year head coach Juwan Howard, who was named Big Ten Coach of the Year after leading Michigan to an overall record of 23-4 and 14-3 in the conference. Not only was Howard able to bring a conference championship back to Ann Arbor for the first time since 2014, he also set a Michigan record for the total number of conference wins by any Michigan basketball coach within their first two seasons. Put simply, Juwan Howard has had one hell of a year so far.
The magical year seemed to crash back to reality after Michigan finished the regular season losing three of their last five games, including a blowout loss to Illinois and an upset loss to rival Michigan State. To make matters worse, the Wolverines would soon learn that they would be without veteran star forward Isaiah Livers for the remainder of the season after suffering a foot fracture against Maryland in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Though Michigan would still go on to earn a No. 1 seed in the tournament, many had already written the Wolverines off as a team that would likely make an early tournament exit due to the loss of Livers.
That may have been the case had someone else been calling the shots, but not with Juwan Howard running things in Ann Arbor. While it was tempting to replace Livers with senior guard Chaundee Brown, Howard made the call to go with junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. - a player who was averaging just over four points per game during the season and under four points per game for his career. It was a bold move that has since paid off in a very big way for Michigan. Not only has Johns Jr. been able to rise to the challenge in his new role as a starter and major contributor, Chaundee Brown has remained in his role of providing a massive spark off of the bench just when the Wolverines seem to need it most.
Against LSU in the second round of the tournament, Howard’s Wolverines would have to fight tooth and nail for an entire 40 minutes to secure a win - and they did. In spite of the fact that the Tigers made several difficult shots and put the Wolverines on the ropes early, Michigan continued to remain poised and never veered away from who they are as a team. As a result, Michigan would go on to win a hard fought battle by a score of 86-78. That poise, that confidence, that ability to stay the course and trust the process - that’s the direct result of Juwan Howard’s leadership.
In what was supposed to be another major challenge for Michigan just a week later against Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen, the Wolverines dominated the Seminoles from start to finish. Make no mistake, Florida State is a talented basketball team that was simply overmatched by what is likely the most complete team left within the NCAA tournament. Defensively, the Wolverines prevented the Seminoles from ever finding their offensive rhythm - forcing Florida State to make difficult shots and to turn the ball over 14 times. By the time the horn sounded and the clock read 0:00, Michigan had cruised to an 18-point win over the Seminoles. It was almost as if Michigan new exactly how, where and when to attack Florida State - another masterful coaching performance by Howard.
Top to bottom, Juwan Howard seems like he was made for this job and for this moment. A true leader of young men, a guy with tremendous integrity, a guy who understands the importance of culture, a competitive force, both knowledgeable and relatable - the kind of guy you want to run through a wall for if you’re a player.
Regardless of whether or not Michigan advances to the Final Four and beyond during this tournament run, one thing has become absolutely crystal clear: we, the Michigan faithful, are beyond blessed to have Juwan Howard in Ann Arbor.