The Wolverine

August 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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34 THE WOLVERINE AUGUST 2021 BY CHRIS BALAS N ot many had Juwan How- ard's second Michigan team pegged to win a Big Ten ti- tle in 2020-21, most pundits picked them to finish in the middle of the pack. Losing center Jon Teske and point guard Zavier Simpson — the program's two winningest players of all time — was going to be too much to overcome, many predicted, surmising it would be a year or two before the Wolverines would be ready to contend in one of the nation's top leagues. Instead, Howard and his staff set out to improve upon a 10-10 Big Ten finish during his debut in the head chair with a plan. The first step was to improve the defense. Howard made that his personal goal, and his squad moved from 28th to fourth nationally in defen- sive efficiency, per His other mission was to take ad- vantage of the transfer portal and plug some holes on the roster, sup- plement others — and that's argu- ably where he got his team over the top. Adding Columbia point guard Mike Smith and Wake Forest wing Chaundee Brown, great fits to the culture in addition to being great players, proved to be the difference. Michigan's man in charge was searching for guys who were hungry for championships and team success while trying to better themselves indi- vidually, as well — not the other way around — and he found two gems. Smith was the perfect floor leader, while Brown not only gave energy off the bench but also provided too many key buckets to remember and relent- less effort on defense. But Howard kept his promise, too, to do everything he could to help improve their games. "It was a great year, and I wish we could have gone even further," Brown said of the season, which ended with U-M's Elite Eight loss to UCLA. "But it was a wonderful year with a wonderful group of guys. We fell short of a couple goals; at the same time, I had the best year of my life, not just on the court but off, too. "Off the court, we were like a fam- ily. The coaches all got along; the players got along. We were like a big, happy family." It started with outstanding leader- ship. Brown and Smith were stellar in that regard, embraced by returnees Isaiah Livers at forward and senior guard Eli Brooks, the natural leaders of the team. Assistant coach Phil Mar- telli raved about the way they led the team through the travails of COVID and kept it together during a two- week shutdown in February, one that slowed a surging team's momentum. He also called Brooks the team's "most valuable player" for his all- around game and leadership. Though none of the players had the virus and took every measure to ensure they wouldn't get it, from staying home after practice to so- cially distancing during down time, the state of Michigan mandated a shutdown after a COVID variant was found on the athletic campus. That put them down, but not out. They'd won 11 in a row to start the season, won seven straight after dropping their first game (at Min- nesota) and clinched a regular-season Big Ten title with a blowout win over Michigan State March 4. "I'm so proud of this group and how they competed all season long during some very difficult times," Howard said at the end of the season. MEN'S TEAM OF THE YEAR BASKETBALL ELITE ELITE Juwan Howard's Basketball Team Shined All Year The Wolverines started the season 11-0, won the Big Ten championship with a 14-3 league mark and then advanced to the Elite Eight. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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