Juwan Howard Baffled By Michigan's Major Flaw: "I Just Don’t Understand It"

It reared its ugly head in another loss Wednesday night.

Will Burchfield
January 23, 2020 - 9:04 am
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For Juwan Howard and Michigan, the honeymoon is over. It was sunny and bright, and impossibly perfect, capped off by three shiny wins in the Bahamas and a No. 4 ranking that no one saw coming. We knew reality would arrive eventually. 

We never thought it would set in like this. 

The Wolverines lost again Wednesday night, this time to Penn State. They've dropped three straight in the Big Ten for the first time in five years. Their 2-5 start in conference play is their worst since 2010-11. Michigan rallied after that initial stumble nine years ago -- 1-7 in the Big Ten on Jan. 22 -- to make the NCAA Tournament, so there's hope for this team yet. 

But right now they've got more questions than answers, which left Howard frequently shaking his head as he tried to make sense of the latest defeat. His biggest frustration came on the defensive end, where Michigan allowed Penn State to shoot over 40 percent from three and nearly 50 percent from the field. 

"They got too many open looks," he said. "It was because of a lack of communication on the defensive end -- and it’s January 22." 

In November? Fine. December? It happens. But more than halfway through the season, for an experienced team? At home no less? This is where Howard is baffled. 

"It’s very challenging to come up here and have to talk about that we’re not communicating enough," he said. "I don’t understand why."

In the locker room, Howard sees his players' energy. He hears their chatter. They bounce among each other like boys. Most of them have been teammates for at least a couple years. But then they take the floor and a distance comes between them. For whatever reason -- and we shouldn't underestimate the loss of defensive guru Luke Yaklich here -- their voices fade away. 

"This group, they look like they enjoy playing with one another. So it’s too late in the season that I have to beg our guys to communicate on defense -- and on the offensive end, too," Howard said. "It just so happens that it’s a lost art in the game and we have to bring it back. Yes, I’m old school, but in order for us to forge ahead and improve, communication has to be a part of the process." 

Penn State got six of its threes -- and almost half of its total points -- from Curtis Jones Jr. and Myreon Jones. Michigan knew the book on them coming in, and got burned just the same. There were blown assignments. There were bad switches. There were lazy close-outs. Ultimately, said Howard, there was too much "guessing" among the players, too much assuming they were thinking alike without ever checking to be sure. 

You got him? I got him?

Too late. 

Howard shook his head again and smiled in disbelief. 

"I just don’t understand it," he said. 

The Wolverines are 4-7 since they returned from the Bahamas. They're 11th in the Big Ten and they've tumbled out of the top 25. Their offense mostly looked fine Wednesday night, and the outcome could have been different had they made any number of open threes. It's hard to overstate the absence of Isaiah Livers in a game they finished 5-28 from beyond the arc. 

But right now, this is Michigan's reality. It's a team that lacks dynamic scorers, led by a point guard who's limited in his own right. That means their defense must be special, and they'd do well in this regard to mimic Zavier Simpson. His is one voice that can always be heard. 

"We really rely on 'X' to get us going and bring the energy, and I think that’s where we can do a better job as a team, more people bringing that fire," said junior Eli Brooks. "Being uncomfortable with that position and being vulnerable like X is, it’s tough. Some people just don’t lead that way and I think we need more people to step up.

"I feel like I can be a more vocal person just by being in the right spot and trying to get other people in the right spots and bringing that energy. I know that’s not who I am, but I can be that. Just seeing X do it, it really gets people going, so that’s one trait I really want to take away from this." 

These are unfamiliar waters for Michigan basketball, after years of smooth sailing under John Beilein. Brooks never lost two games in a row his first two seasons. Two out of four was considered a storm. These Wolverines have lost four out of five, and the Bahamas -- never mind Beilein -- feel like a place from the distant past. The NCAA Tournament is starting to slide off the map. 

Can Howard get his team back on course? 

"Oh man, I got that under control. Trust me on that one," he said. "There’s not going to be any doubt in that locker room. We will not lose trust in one another. There’s a lot of season to be played, and you learn from games like this. No one said we were going to win every game this season." 

But no one said it would be like this.