by Jared Greenspan
Beating up on the likes of Elon and Houston Baptist offered reassuring confidence boosts for Juwan Howard and company, but no true insight into the team’s identity. Whether this team could compete against stiffer competition was unclear.
In the Bahamas, the Wolverines resolutely answered the question. Criminally underrated and unranked, Michigan emerged as one of the best teams in the country.
En route to capturing the tournament championship, the Wolverines defeated a respectable Iowa State team along with two blue bloods: sixth ranked North Carolina and eighth ranked Gonzaga. Even more impressive than the wins themselves was the manner in which they won, running each of their opponents straight out of the Paradise Ballroom.
Michigan’s domination in the Bahamas truly was a team effort.
Over the first four games of the season, the Wolverines heavily relied on senior point guard and leader Zavier Simpson. As Simpson went, so did the offense, for better and for worse. Against talented point guards like Iowa State sophomore Tyrese Haliburton and North Carolina freshman sensation Cole Anthony, it was presumed that Michigan would need peak-Simpson to stand a chance.
In both matchups, the Wolverines got subpar Simpson. He was uncharacteristically sloppy as the court mistro in the opener, committing eight turnovers. A day later, he endured foul trouble and only appeared on the court for 17 minutes, fouling out with five minutes left to play.
And yet, Michigan proved it could manage just fine without Simpson, opening up a 15-point lead on Iowa State despite Simpson’s bout with turnovers and stretching its lead against North Carolina to 24-points as Simpson rode the bench. Such was a far cry from the haplessness that branded the offense whenever Simpson took a breather in games pre-Atlantis.
The emergence of rotational players underneath Juwan Howard’s guidance is a big reason why Michigan was all of a sudden able to navigate the storm without Simpson. Howard’s tendency to go nine and even ten players deep in a game has paid massive dividends, keeping everyone fresh and instilling confidence in their in-game abilities.
David DeJulius is suddenly living up to his preseason hype, playing like a different player than the one we saw in the season-opener against Appalachian State. The sophomore guard dropped 34 points in the three games, showcasing a near-automatic three-point stroke.
Eli Brooks too looks rejuvenated, notching 24 points in 39 minutes against North Carolina, a game in which he embraced his role as the go-to scorer late. Brooks showed a play-making ability with dribble-drives and stellar outside-shooting that rivaled Muhammad Ali-Abdur Rahkman’s.
The narrative of improvement can be extended to every other player on the team. Isaiah Livers appears set to burst onto the scene as one of the premier players in the Big Ten. Franz Wagner flashed his potential after returning from a broken wrist. Colin Castleton seems stronger down low. Jon Teske silenced any doubts that he could keep up with the new frenetic, high-octane offensive system with a resounding 19 point, 15 rebound effort against Gonzaga that earned him MVP honors.
A piece about Michigan proving itself would be remiss if it didn’t mention Juwan Howard himself. Just seven games into his coaching career, Howard has already quieted critics that harped on his lack of coaching experience and estrangement from the college game after out-coaching the likes of Roy Williams and Mark Few. He has shown a masterful ability to handle rotations, get the most out of his players and make in-game adjustments.
Howard has quickly gained the support and adoration of his team — just look at the excitement and jubilation cast upon his players’ faces as he rocked his classic cabbage patch dance following the victory over Gonzaga.
Howard and Michigan want to be more than feel good story — they want to keep this early-season success up. The schedule for the Wolverines offers no easy games. A road trip to Louisville, the nation’s freshly-minted number one team, beckons. Matchups against Iowa and Illinois to start Big Ten play, along with a tough non-conference game against Oregon, loom in the near-future as well.
For now, though, the Wolverines are rolling and have firmly put themselves back onto the basketball map, a map that never should have removed them in the first place.