Up close and personal for a game with Michigan’s Juwan Howard
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Juwan Howard had a homecoming of sorts on Wednesday night, the Chicago native returning to his home state to coach the Michigan men's basketball team against Illinois.
Benefiting from premium media seating at the State Farm Center, MLive sat just a couple of rows behind Michigan's bench, directly behind where Howard stood for most of the game.
As a star Michigan player in the early 90s, Howard had gone 6-0 against Illinois, including a 3-0 mark in Champaign.
His coaching debut in the arena got off to a shaky start.
He takes the court just before 8:00 p.m. local (central) time and is told by his director of basketball operations, Chris Hunter, of a clerical error that has little-used big man Austin Davis starting instead of guard Eli Brooks.
Howard's top assistant, Phil Martelli, had apparently written Davis' No. 51 in the official scorer's book instead of Brooks' 55.
Howard looks at Hunter in disbelief before smiling.
The national anthem about to begin, Howard takes his place with his team, wearing a dark grey suit, brown shoes, and a yellow patterned tie. He does the sign of the cross when the anthem is finished, and loses his Jordan "Jumpman" pin in the process. Director of player personnel and development Jay Smith, an assistant at Michigan during Howard's playing days, finds it and reaffixes it to his lapel.
"Juwan Howard, you suck!" yells a not particularly clever fan in the "Orange Krush," Illinois' student section. A slightly more clever fan shouts, "LeBron carried you!"
If Howard hears it -- and he probably does -- he doesn't react.
Martelli has a laugh with Howard about his gaffe after straightening it out with the scorer's table. It turns out Martelli hadn't written the wrong number. The officials just couldn't read his handwriting.
Martelli's daughter Elizabeth, learning about this via Twitter, writes of her father: "He has THE worst handwriting. My mom and his past secretary are the only people who could decipher it!"
At 8:07, Howard, seated alongside Martelli (to his right) and assistants Saddi Washington and Howard Eisley (left), watches Illinois win the opening tip.
He doesn't stand or say anything until the first points are scored, by Illinois more than a minute into the game, at which point he rises and slides several feet towards half court, hands in pockets. He mimics a shoving motion to a referee, trying to point out an offensive foul, just before Illinois scores again. He sweeps his left hand, imploring the Wolverines to get up the court faster on offense, then smacks his thumbs against the rest of his fingers to remind his players to talk on defense.
Five minutes in, senior center Jon Teske hits a 3 to give Michigan its first lead, 11-8, and fires an imaginary arrow towards the bench and teammate Luke Wilson. Teske gets a defensive rebound and hits a jumper at the other end, eliciting a fist pump from Howard, who turns to his bench and claps.
Howard calls out a play; Michigan doesn't score. He yells "box out" the moment Illinois' Trent Frazier releases a 3, but the Illini come down with the offensive rebound.
It's a frenetic pace to start, and the first media timeout doesn't come until the 13:58 mark. While equipment manager Bob Bland quickly sets up five chairs several feet away from the bench, Howard takes 30 seconds to himself, jotting some notes, letting Eisley talk to the players, before sitting in front of the team and drawing instructions on a dry erase board shaped like a basketball court.
Trainer Alex Wong enters the huddle to rub down Isaiah Livers' knees. A student manager, Colin Anschuetz, holds up a small whiteboard listing Michigan's defensive matchups, with some notes: X (as in Zavier Simpson) has #1, who's left-handed. FW (Franz Wagner) will guard #0, who has "OREB" next to his number, likely indicating he's he'll crash from the perimeter for offensive rebounds.
The rest of Howard's staff flanks him or lines up behind the seated players: the aforementioned folks plus strength coach Jon Sanderson, video analyst David Metzendorf, and graduate manager Jaaron Simmons.
Play resumes, and with 13:21 left in the half Howard makes his first sub, sending sophomore David DeJulius in with a pat on his backside.
Howard calls a play ("elbow twist," it sounds like), then sees Illinois' defensive setup and changes his mind.
After Simpson's acrobatic finish makes it 15-14 Michigan, Howard doesn't celebrate; instead, he tells Teske what he should have done on the previous offensive possession in which he turned it over.
"Juwan, I can't see!" a fan yells at the 6-foot-9 coach.
The next media timeout comes with 9:54 left in the half. Howard checks a sheet he keeps tucked in his jacket pocket before addressing the team.
With 8:26 left, Simpson, a defensive pest, forces a held ball on Giorgi Bezhanishvili, then has a few words for the sophomore. Bezhanishvili reacts: "Huh? Huh?!" clapping his hands before, red-faced, heading to the bench, his coach recognizing he needs to cool off.
After another minute of game action, there's another media stoppage. As two kids wearing adult-sized basketball shorts, jerseys, and sneakers shoot layups to compete for pork sandwiches behind him, Howard talks to his team.
Out of the timeout, with Livers on the foul line, Howard has a word with Brooks. Then Howard sits for the first time -- outside of timeouts -- since the opening minute of the game.
He's back up quickly, annoying the same fan from earlier. "Juwan, I still can't see!"
With 4:34 left in the half, he reaches to help Teske off the ground in front of the scorer's table as the big man checks in along with Brooks. At the last second, Howard also sends Adrien Nuñez in for Simpson.
Howard had said on his radio show earlier in the week that he felt bad that he hadn't been able to get Nuñez, who started the first four games of the season, on to the court in Michigan's previous two games. Nuñez would play seven minutes on Wednesday.
Within 20 seconds, Brandon Johns Jr. is subbed out the game, and Martelli stands to meet him. Johns had missed two 3s and banked in -- likely unintentionally -- a long jumper during his stint. "You were confident up here," Martelli tells him, mimicking the shooting motion, "But your feet were moving. All right, baby?"
At the final media break of the half, with 3:12 left, t-shirts fly over Howard's head into the stands as he looks each player in the eye while giving instruction.
Howard calls his first timeout with 32 seconds left. Whatever he drew up was likely against the man-to-man defense Illinois had shown throughout the game. The Illini, however, come out in a zone, causing Simpson, dribbling beyond the 3-point line, to look to Howard for guidance.
Howard comes up with something new, but we never see what exactly: Simpson passes to Brooks, who travels.
Illinois calls timeout. On the ensuing possession, the ball is knocked out of bounds with four seconds left. Howard looks towards Illinois head coach Brad Underwood to see what play he calls, then tells the Wolverines something in response. Illinois doesn't score, but still leads 30-28 at the break.
Howard is a man on a mission towards the tunnel and the visitors' locker room -- until he's interrupted by BTN sideline reporter Olivia Dekker.
"It's a man's league," he tells her, in response to a question about the post battle between Teske and Illinois' Kofi Cockburn.
It's 8:51, and Howard has about 15 minutes to make adjustments for the second half.
When play resumes, Cockburn gets an easy dunk and Howard shakes his head. At the other end, with Michigan's offense operating in front of Howard now, Simpson has two beautiful assists to start the half.
After the second, with the Wolverines getting back on defense, Howard shows them a photo of his friend P.J. Tucker, a forward with the Houston Rockets. Over the summer, Howard saw a video of Tucker, trying out for Team USA, communicating nonstop on the defensive end. Several times on Wednesday, Howard shows the Tucker photo as a reminder to his players to do the same.
Howard laughs at a foul call against Brooks, thinking the offensive player leaned in. He has a word with Simpson, who relays the message to his teammates.
With 17:39 left, the ball is deflected out of bounds. Hunter, the director of operations who had 372 rebounds during his Michigan career, snatches it.
A minute later, Howard argues across to the court to referee Bo Boroski, wanting a push-off foul.
Livers hits a 3 with 14:53 left to cut Illinois' lead to 42-37. There wasn't enough of that on Wednesday. Michigan shot just 3-for-18 from 3.
As Bezhanishvili explained afterwards, "Our game plan was to let them play 2-on-2 and take away the 3s." Illinois played the Simpson-Teske ball screens straight up, knowing they'd allow some baskets but trying to prevent Simpson from getting everyone involved.
After the Livers triple, Howard again shows the Tucker photo, yelling "P.J. Tucker" in case the Wolverines aren't looking.
A fan, misinterpreting the meaning of the photo, shouts, "Juwan, I saw your play!"
Before Illinois takes the ball out with 13:26 left, Howard implores his guys: "Get a stop! Let's go! Get a stop!" They oblige, forcing a wild shot and corralling the rebound.
A minute later, Bezhanishvili is at the scorer's table set to check in when he hears Howard call out a play. Unlike the fan, he actually seems to know what's about to happen.
He gets into the game,
"I looked at their coach and he called out a play: 'Five,'" Bezhanishvili says afterwards. "The whole entire team knew the play because we were really dialed in, watched a lot of film, just really prepared. I knew it was a side ball screen. I looked at coach, he looked at me, and then I told Trent and Dre: 'Five. Side ball screen is coming.' We just knew what was coming. I think that really messed them up. I think. Maybe not."
Howard, who laughs when Bezhanishvili reacts to the play call, later calls the exchange "cute."
The result: Frazier gets a steal and Illinois draws a foul at the other end. Martelli reminds Howard that it's Wagner's third foul. Howard nods, calls for Nuñez to replace him.
Simpson goes to the line with 12:09 left and Michigan trailing by nine. The student section chants "Fifty eight percent," a reference to Simpson's poor free throw shooting. He misses the first, inspiring the same fans to chant, "Overrated," perhaps at Simpson but likely at fifth-ranked Michigan in general. He makes the second.
With seven minutes left and Michigan trailing by eight, Howard's arm waving doesn't get his players' attention, so he once again raises the Tucker photo before setting it face down on the scorer's table in front of radio color analyst Terry Mills.
Illinois goes up 10 and Howard stomps his feet, wanting a traveling violation.
With 3:13 to go, play is stopped after Cockburn -- while celebrating a basket -- accidentally clocks referee Lewis Garrison in the head. Howard walks across the court to check on Garrison.
"It doesn't matter if he had on an official's jersey or he's an opponent, I care about his health," Howard says afterwards. "I just hope he's OK."
An Illinois spokesperson says after the game that Garrison was cleared by doctors on site and was brought to a local emergency room for a precautionary x-ray.
After the injury, Michigan goes on an 8-0 run, keyed by a full-court press.
Howard wanted a timeout in the middle of it -- immediately after a Teske layup -- but with only two referees on the court, he wasn't heard.
After cutting the margin to four, Michigan misses its final four shots.
Howard calls off the attack as Illinois dribbles out the clock and the horn sounds. Except there appears to time left, and Howard isn't sure why the game is over. A second is added to the clock, so Michigan has to inbounds the ball one more time to make it official.
Illinois wins, 71-62.
Howard shakes hands with the Illinois coaches and players, sharing a few extra words with some.
"He was so nice after the game," Bezhanishvili will say. "He congratulated us on how hard we played. And he told us to stay healthy. It shows how high class he really is after a game like that. A lot of respect to him."
Says Dosunmu, with a smile: "He's from Chicago so growing up I knew a lot about him, heard a lot about him. He went to CVS (Chicago Vocational School), and I just told him out there, 'I was 4-0 against CVS. Now I'm 5-0. CVS never beat Morgan Park.' He said how he used to kill Morgan Park back in the day."
Howard leaves the court at 10:10, past a group of older women wearing orange shirts that claim "Ann Arbor" is, in different words, a woman with a poor reputation.
In the postgame press conference, Howard -- sans jacket and tie now -- stares at the box score, breathing slowly, as Teske and Brooks answer questions. Then it’s his turn.
"We're a better defensive team than that," he says. "If we want to battle and compete in the Big Ten and have a chance to raise a trophy, we can't allow teams to score 44 points on us in the paint, and then also have 16 second-chance points and 15 offensive rebounds. That's a recipe for a loss."
He talks for seven minutes before ducking his head to exit the room. He boards the team's chartered flight back home. The Wolverines land at 1:30 ET, meaning the loss is already, to Howard, a day old.
Michigan is 8-2, having split its two December Big Ten games.
Howard will likely get some sleep before waking early to begin preparation for the next game. No. 10 Oregon, on Saturday, is next.
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