The easy comparison was Chris Mullin. Or Eddie Jordan. Or Clyde Drexler. Former NBA stars who returned to the site of their college glory as head coaches.
It was a knee-jerk hot take when Michigan hired Juwan Howard in the spring of 2019.
Howard had never been a head coach before. He had never coached in college. There was no way it was going to work. The two-time NBA champion and Heat assistant coach would fall on his face like so many other NBA guys before him.
A funny thing happened on his way down, however. Howard won, and won right away. He hired a terrific staff led by former St. Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli to show him the ropes. He kept assistant Saddi Washington, who helped with the program’s current players.
Howard didn’t think college would be easy, like so many other NBA coaches have. He worked to learn the game and create relationships. He didn’t make too many changes upon replacing successful predecessor John Beilein. Just look at his work on the recruiting trail. Michigan has the No. 1 class for 2021 according 247Sports. It was ranked 14th in 2020. It has done well in the transfer game.
The result is the potential National Coach of the Year. After Sunday’s impressive road win at No. 4 Ohio State, third-ranked Michigan looks like a lock for a No. 1 seed, particularly impressive for a team that was picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten and was ranked 25th in the preseason. The Wolverines play incredibly hard, they move the ball on offense and don’t overly rely on any one player. They are well-coached, a nod to the job Howard has done.
Of Michigan’s six leading scorers a year ago, only three returned. That included its heart and soul, point guard Zavier Simpson, and leading rebounder and rim protector Jon Teske.
To replace them, Michigan inserted four-star big man Hunter Dickinson and two graduate transfers, Mike Smith of Columbia and Chaundee Brown of Wake Forest.
In a normal season, it’s difficult to integrate new components like that and be so successful. This year, of course, is not normal. There was virtually no offseason. Michigan played just five non-conference games. It had a three-week COVID-19 pause.
It hasn’t slowed down the Wolverines. They returned by beating three tournament teams: Winning at Wisconsin, overwhelming Rutgers and outlasting Ohio State on Sunday.
It is one of just four teams in the country that is ranked in the top 12 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Baylor, Gonzaga and Illinois are the others. It is deep, balanced — eight players average at least 10 minutes per game — and experienced. Those are qualities that win in March.
It also has a terrific coach, one who has already beaten the odds. A former star alum coming from the NBA can work in college. It just has to be the right person, someone willing to work and listen and learn. Nobody is questioning this hire now.
Blue Devil in the details
Duke dominated the headlines this week, and for once it wasn’t about its disappointing season. It centered around five-star freshman forward Jalen Johnson’s decision to leave the team and focus on the NBA draft, the media reaction to that move and Duke’s resulting improved play.
Some in the media caught flack for saying he quit. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was criticized for voicing his opinion, that Johnson leaving made Duke better. The Blue Devils have won three straight games, two without Johnson, and are inching into the NCAA Tournament picture after their home win over No. 7 Virginia on Saturday.
My take: Johnson knew he wasn’t going to return to school. He was being phased out, coming off the bench and receiving fewer minutes, and felt it was in his best interests to focus on his still-bright future. It’s hard to fault him for that. I don’t think opting out is the correct way to describe this. I don’t believe quitting is fair, either.
This might just have been a mutually-agreed-upon decision that was good for both sides. So far, Duke should have no complaints. It is playing its best basketball and may have eliminated a distraction in the projected lottery pick
Game of the Week
No. 2 Baylor at No. 23 Kansas, Saturday, 8 p.m.
After a three-week COVID-19 pause, the Bears will be busy, playing three games in six days that culminate with a trip to Allen Fieldhouse. It’s been a down year for the Jayhawks, but they are finally hitting their stride, winning five straight games and are in position to finish second in the loaded Big 12. Kansas is coming off a big win over No. 15 Texas Tech, but this will really be a measuring-stick week, visiting Texas and hosting arguably the best team in the nation.
- Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Ohio State
- Illinois, Alabama, Villanova, Oklahoma
- Iowa, West Virginia, Texas Tech, Houston
- Missouri, Texas, Florida State, Kansas
Up: Blue Bloods
The established powerhouses struck back this week. Duke continued to play its way back into the NCAA Tournament picture with a home win over Virginia. North Carolina solidified its position with a 45-point pasting of Louisville. Kansas knocked off Texas Tech and has won five straight games. Even under-.500 Kentucky showed it will be a factor in the SEC Tournament by beating Tennessee by 15 on the road. The lesson: Never count out talent or winning muscle memory.
Up: Rick Pitino
Remember him? Hall of Fame coach. Team had a 51-day COVID-19 pause. Well, Iona is back and that long delay hasn’t negatively impacted the Gaels too much. They’ve won three of five since returning including a weekend sweep of conference wins leader Monmouth, and in terms of winning percentage, sit in second place in the MAAC behind only Siena. Pitino has the league’s leading scorer in senior Isaiah Ross and one of its best big men in freshman Nelly Junior Joseph. This team will be a factor in the conference tournament.
Just a few days ago, it looked like St. John’s, Seton Hall and Rutgers — the area’s three high-major programs — could go dancing in the same year for the first time since 1991. Now it’s not out of the question that all three could be left out after they suffered dismal defeats this weekend. All were heavy favorites. All lost — St. John’s at home to DePaul, Seton Hall at Georgetown and Rutgers to Maryland at the RAC. I still think Rutgers is in good shape, with a 7-9 record in Quad 1 and 2 games, and no bad losses. It better beat Indiana on Wednesday, though. Seton Hall only has one Quad 3 defeat, and is 5-8 against the first two quads. The Pirates just need to finish strong, going at least 2-1 in their final three games against Butler, UConn and St. John’s. The Johnnies now have three Quad 3 losses, and really need to find a way to win at No. 10 Villanova on Tuesday.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a team with a stranger résumé than Minnesota. It has wins over projected No. 1 seeds in Michigan and Ohio State. It has a victory over Iowa and likely National Player of the Year Luka Garza. But the Golden Gophers are also 0-8 on the road and no team has ever been selected to the tournament without a win away from its own building. They also are coming off an ugly 31-point home loss to No. 5 Illinois, although the remainder of the schedule — at Nebraska and Penn State, home for Northwestern and Rutgers — is relatively soft. It would be in their best interest to win at least once on the road, if not twice, to improve upon their mediocre NET rating of 61.