For most of the season, the thought of Michigan reaching the Sweet Sixteen seemed unfathomable.
And yet through all of the turbulence — bumpy transitions, a COVID-19 outbreak, a handshake line fiasco — Michigan arrived in San Antonio Tuesday evening, one of the last 16 teams vying for a National Championship. The Wolverines are one of just two Big Ten teams remaining and are in their fifth consecutive Sweet Sixteen, a mark that only Gonzaga can top.
So here was Juwan Howard Wednesday afternoon, sitting in front of a backdrop of March Madness logos with “Sweet 16” and “Elite 8” emblazoned at the top and bottom. He just finished orchestrating a practice ahead of Thursday’s clash with Villanova, and now it was time to ponder on the program’s unwavering success and what it means.
“Five straight Sweet Sixteen appearances, it’s not easy,” Howard began. “It takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of being uncomfortable. And now that this is my third year as a coach, I can speak on this.”
Seeing Howard in this position is with a reflection on the hectic year that it’s been for him. This is the first year in which Michigan’s rotation is predominantly comprised of Howard’s players — the ones that he recruited, rather than inherited from his predecessor, John Beilein. Amongst Beilein holdovers, just Eli Brooks and Brandon Johns receive minutes.
Howard has spent much of the year under a public microscope. His team — heralded as National Championship contenders entering the season — face planted, bottoming out at 7-7 in early January. And Howard himself ignited a now-infamous postgame scuffle in which he struck a Wisconsin assistant coach, drawing a five-game suspension and hurting both his team’s postseason chances and his own public image.