Gonzaga looks like the team to beat this year, Baylor is a close second and the third hottest team in college basketball is ... Michigan?
The Wolverines are now 11-0 after destroying No. 9 Wisconsin on Tuesday night, 77-54. Wisconsin was a fierce opponent coming in, having only lost two games prior. They beat No. 12 Michigan State on Christmas Day by double digits and won two straight heading into the top-10 matchup with No. 7 Michigan. But it was never close Tuesday. The Wolverines led by 40 at one point and had a 43-6 run bridging the first and second half. Four players finished in double digits, and it’s the first time in college basketball history that a team has beaten three straight ranked opponents by at least 19 points.
“They were locked in to making everything tough for their opponent and it’s not easy,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said after the game. “It’s the buy-in of drilling it in practice, watching it on film and putting in the work at practice when it feels uncomfortable.”
In two short seasons, Howard has managed to make the Michigan program his own.
Prior to taking over as head coach of his alma mater, Howard was one of the most likable coaches in the NBA and was building a nice career as an assistant for the Miami Heat. When Howard took over at Michigan, former head coach John Beilein had just taken an NBA head coaching position in Cleveland after a 12-season run in Ann Arbor.
There have been former NBA players that have taken over college programs in the past but no one has been as successful as Juwan Howard so quickly. Avery Johnson was the head coach at Alabama for four years and had little success; Penny Hardaway has had some recruiting wins at Memphis with James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa but has only had a ranked team once in three seasons.
Michigan made an early statement in the 2019-20 season, starting 7-0 and defeating Gonzaga to win the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. Howard was able to do that with a team he inherited from Beilein, filled with players he did not recruit. The Big Ten was the toughest conference in college basketball last season and the Wolverines still managed to finish with a 19-12 record. Howard didn’t waste any time in the offseason and brought in some high-level high school talent, including four-star recruits Hunter Dickinson, Zeb Jackson, Terrence Williams and also Howard’s son, Jace.
The Wolverines only lost two seniors and returned key players like senior Isaiah Livers, sophomore Franz Wagner and graduate students Austin Davis and Mike Smith. Michigan was ranked No. 25 heading into the season and it took five weeks and a 6-0 record until Howard’s squad started to steadily climb the rankings.
“Everyone’s in. Everyone has bought into the culture in two short years and I still think there’s another step for us,” Isaiah Livers said after the Wisconsin win. “It’s similar to my sophomore year, that 17-0 start, but I think this team is a lot deeper.”
This is a Michigan team that lives and dies by their defense.
“In order to play on coach Howard’s team, you have to play defense,” Livers said. “We just said, ‘Why not try to disrupt every team from running their offense?’ And it just led to this culture of being disruptive and blocking shots, steals in the gap, talking, just flying around. We want to play like there’s six guys on defense.”
Michigan had nine blocks against Wisconsin and has plenty of depth and height in the front court with 7-foot-1 freshman Dickinson, 6-foot-9 sophomore Wagner and 6-foot-8 junior Brandon Johns Jr.
Wagner, the younger brother of former Michigan player and current Washington Wizards forward Moe Wagner, is the most improved player on this Wolverines team and was the best player on the court Tuesday night. Wagner came in his freshman year at just 205 pounds and worked out with his brother in D.C. during the extended quarantine time and is now playing at 226 pounds.
“He just trained his butt off all spring,” Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson told Brendan Quinn of the Athletic. “I mean, he pushed it. It wasn’t perfect. He didn’t have a real weight room, but he made the most of that three-month period, then returned to campus determined to be physically different.”
Wagner has scored in double digits in the last five games and finished with a double-double Tuesday night including 15 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and one block. Because of the added weight, he’s not getting pushed around in the lane anymore and is finding different ways to score.
Michigan doesn’t have any five-star one-and-done recruits on the team. Every player on the roster has bought in early to what Howard wants Michigan basketball to look like. Other elite high school players want to be a part of it and learn from a coach like Howard and it has helped tremendously on the recruiting trail. Michigan has the No. 1 recruiting class heading into next season, led by five-star wing Caleb Houstan.
"We worked very hard at identifying high-character players and the pieces that are going to help our program,” Howard said. “We want to make sure we have quality young men, from quality families who can come in and represent the Block 'M' and this university with dignity and grace.”
It’s taken Shaka Smart six seasons at Texas to finally gain some traction and what Howard has done in two years at Michigan is nothing short of remarkable. There are so many moving pieces at the college level from recruiting to game preparation, hiring the right coaching staff and building a winning culture that everyone buys into. Gonzaga might get all the fanfare as the top team this season, but Michigan is lurking in the shadows and has all the tools to be there as one of the Final Four teams in Indianapolis.
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