INDIANAPOLIS — It’s not that Juwan Howard doesn’t love his old friend and mentor, Leonard Hamilton.
It’s just that there’s a lot on the line this week.
The Sweet 16 game Sunday between Michigan and Florida State also sets up a coaching confrontation between student and mentor. Howard and Hamilton struck up a strong friendship in 2000, when Howard was wrapping up his time with the Washington Wizards and Hamilton was coaching there.
Last year, when Howard got his job coaching his alma mater, who are top-seeded and into the second weekend for the fourth straight tournament, one of his first visits was to Hamilton. Good choice. “Coach Ham,” as Howard calls him, is building something big at Florida State, which has reached this point for the third straight tournament and is seeded fourth.
All great story lines, Howard concedes. But business is business. He said even if his late grandmother, Jannie Mae Howard, was alive and playing basketball, “I’d play her 1-on-1. I’d be very physical with her.”
“And when the game is over, I’m gonna embrace her, hug her and kiss her,” Howard said. “That’s how it goes in the game of basketball. Once the game starts, you’re locked into your opponent”
Howard views it more as a matter of coincidence than fate that this matchup marks a rare-but-not-unheard-of meeting between Black coaches this far along in the bracket. More significant to one of the cornerstones of the Fab Five is that it’s a meeting between friends who are trying to instill the same values in the players they coach.
“We’re two men able to empower young men to go out there and live their dreams,” Howard said.
Lest things turn too touchy-feely, Howard knows he has not drawn the easiest of assignments.
Florida State has become the current-day power in the ACC, with a program that stresses great defense. According to analytics website kenpom.com, FSU is the tallest team in the country, one that allows opponents to shoot under 44% from inside, which is ranked ninth nationally. The Seminoles allowed the fewest points (107) over the first two games of any of the 16 teams left in the tournament.
Michigan has been mostly on point through the first two games, as well. After a slow start against hot-shooting LSU in the second round, Howard kept pushing for better defense, and got it. The game changed when the Wolverines started doing a better job denying the perimeter and forcing LSU’s scorers inside, where they had to contend with 7-foot-1 Hunter Dickenson and 6-9 Franz Wagner.
In his first year, Howard has navigated the adjustment from NBA assistant coach (with the Heat) to head coach of a major college program, and that program hasn’t skipped a beat. It’s not a surprise to Hamilton.
“There’s no doubt that Juwan is the ultimate professional. A class act,” Hamilton said. “He’s someone I think the people at Michigan can be very proud of, and I think they need to sit back and relax and enjoy the ride, because he’s going to take them maybe even higher than some of the places Michigan basketball has been in the past.”
Since winning the national title in 1989, Michigan has been to the title game four times and lost all four, including twice while Howard and the Fab Five were redefining college hoops and pop culture in the early 1990s.
Florida State is an emerging power with nowhere near the history, but with a lot of momentum behind this program.
In preparing for the big game, Howard says he focuses more on Xs and Os than the challenge of facing a coach who, with four more wins, would reach 600 for his career — and be hoisting a national title trophy if those wins come over the next two weeks in Indy.
“Haven’t even looked at this,” Howard said about the specific challenges of facing Hamilton. “To be honest, I love the man.”
UCLA VS. ALABAMA
The Pac-12’s surprising run through the first weekend of March Madness comes up against a surprising new potential powerhouse from the SEC.
No. 11 seed UCLA is one of four teams from the Pac-12 that made it to the Sweet 16, while No. 2 seed Alabama owned a conference usually dominated this time of year by Kentucky, which didn’t even make the tournament.
UCLA’s Johnny Juzang played last season at Kentucky, but he struggled, and eventually found his way back home. He’s an LA native.
Juzang delivered with a 27-point performance against BYU last week. UCLA is trying to join VCU as only the second team to go from the play-in round to the Final Four.
“Johnny is young,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said after the BYU game. “Last year he should have been a senior in high school. He’s improved immensely.”