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How Michigan turned a transition year into a contender under Juwan Howard

Michigan is the hottest college basketball team without John Beilein. This is how they’ve done it.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis Championship-Gonzaga vs Michigan Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This was supposed to be a transition year for Michigan by any reasonable expectation. Wolverines basketball lost its heart and soul when John Beilein decided to jump to the NBA at 66 years old, taking with him the secrets that led the program to two national title games, an Elite Eight, and two Sweet 16s over the course of the decade. The roster was turning over, as well: Michigan lost its top three leading scorers in Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole, and Charles Matthews, the first two leaving multiple years of eligibility on the table to enter the NBA draft.

It’s impossible to replace a legend of Beilein’s stature, so Michigan went for the next best thing in its coaching search. In tabbing Juwan Howard, the Wolverines had a young coach with recent NBA ties who played for the most iconic team in school history. This was a transformational hire in every way, one Michigan hoped could run with what Beilein had built while adding a new level of recruiting prowess. No one expected that to happen overnight, especially not when Luke Yaklich — the esteemed defensive coordinator credited for engineering units that finished top-3 in the country each of the last two seasons — also left, this time for Texas.

Michigan was picked to finish No. 5 in the Big Ten preseason poll and went unranked in the initial top-25. While it wasn’t considered an affront at the time, it sure looks foolish now.

As college basketball’s top teams continue to crumble, it’s Michigan who has been the most impressive team in the country through the first month of the season. The Wolverines solidified that status with a remarkable title run at the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they took out a talented Iowa State team, knocked off No. 6 North Carolina, and then beat No. 8 Gonzaga to claim the trophy.

The Wolverines went from unranked to No. 4 in the latest rankings, which is tied for the largest jump in the 70-year history of the AP poll. Michigan being this good, this fast under Howard is the biggest story in college basketball right now. Here’s how they’ve done it.

3 holdovers from the Beilein era are leading the way

While the Wolverines lost their three leading scorers from last season, they retained their two best defensive players and one of their most versatile scorers. Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, and Isaiah Livers each played a critical role in Beilein’s system, and are taking their games to new heights with an even greater opportunity under Howard.

Teske, a senior, is a 7’1 center who might be the best interior defender in America. Teske isn’t the type of ultra-quick “switch” big man coveted at the next level, but he’s always in the right position and knows how to use his verticality to wall off the rim. Teske had four blocks each against North Carolina and Gonzaga, dominating a pair of front lines with blue chip talent. His offense is rapidly improving, as well: Teske is currently averaging a career-high 13.3 points per game off the strength tip-ins, post moves, and a face-up jumper with range out to three.

Teske will never have the hype of a one-and-done freshman or even a flashier college veteran, but there’s a case to made right now that he’s one of the most impactful players in the country. This type of size, feel, skill, and two-way ability does not come around often at the college level.

Simpson is following a similar path as Teske: he’s an elite defender who is making serious strides offensively. Simpson has long been the beating heart of the roster after taking the reins midway through his sophomore season and helping lead the Wolverines to the national title game. Simpson’s defense and vocal leadership remains as great as ever, but this season he’s adding something he’s never had before: a jump shot. Simpson has made 8-of-18 three-pointers this year after hitting just 30 percent of his threes last season.

An improved jumper is opening up the rest of his game: Simpson is also averaging 9.7 assists per game while doubling as the nation’s leader in assist percentage. Simpson is assisting on over 50 percent of Michigan’s baskets when he’s on the floor. This pass is an absolute dime:

Then there’s Livers, last season’s sixth man who has pulled off a seamless transition as this year’s primary offensive option. At 6’7, 230 pounds, Livers is the perfect college stretch four, an elite three-point shooter who can also put the ball on the floor and beat a closeout. He’s creating more than ever before, and his scoring average has jumped from 7.9 points per game to 17 points per game as he’s done it on a sparkling 70 percent true shooting percentage.

Livers, a junior, should be getting NBA hype right now with a skill set perfect for the modern game. It will come if he keeps playing like this.

Michigan shoots the hell out of the ball and defends its ass off

Want to be a successful college basketball team? Here’s a simple formula: defend at a high level and make your threes. Michigan is doing both things right now.

Yaklich is gone, but the Wolverines’ defense remains formidable, currently ranking No. 12 in the country. Credit Simpson and Teske for locking down the perimeter and paint, respectively. Freshman forward Franz Wagner has great size and active hands. Sophomore big Brandon Johns is cleaning the glass in his minutes. Eli Brooks is holding his own. There’s an infrastructure in place to shield weaker defenders (like Adrien Nunez), and it starts by having a monster at the rim like Teske.

The shooting numbers speak for themselves: Michigan is making 42.9 percent of its threes so far, the No. 9 mark in America. Just over 40 percent of Michigan’s field goal attempts are threes (which ranks No. 112 in DI), so the volume isn’t sky-high but the accuracy is. Livers is making more than half is attempts from deep. Brooks is hitting 50 percent. David DeJulius is at 47 percent. Even Simpson is at 44 percent from three-point range.

The shooting numbers are going to fall some, but the drop-off shouldn’t be severe. The defense should remain very good. Michigan is nailing this time-tested formula for success.

Juwan Howard is starting to build momentum

Howard’s recruiting touch paid off for Michigan right away. First, he convinced Wagner — a blue chip prospect from Germany and the younger brother of Michigan legend Moritz Wagner — to join the team this year. He’s just now getting comfortable and should be an impact player as the year progresses. Howard also convinced DeJulius to stick around after not getting the opportunity he was hoping for as a freshman.

Michigan’s incoming recruiting class is even more promising. Isaiah Todd, a 6’10 big man ranked No. 12 in his class by 247 Sports, is already considered the best recruit in school history since 247 Sports started tracking prospects in the mid-aughts. Zeb Jackson is an Ohio guard ranked No. 68 in his class. There will be more talent on the way, but this has been a great start.

The last two teams that won the Battle 4 Atlantis won the national championship. Regardless of whether Michigan can go all the way, one thing is for sure: this is no transition year. The Wolverines will be a force all season long.