Michigan basketball prepares for unusual senior night without head coach Juwan Howard

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ANN ARBOR — Five Michigan senior men’s basketball players will exit Crisler Center’s southeast tunnel one by one Thursday night, accompanied by their parents and/or other family members. At the end of their walk across the court, they will be greeted by… someone.

But not Juwan Howard. The Michigan head coach is serving a suspension that bars him from attending games and other team activities, including Thursday’s pregame ceremony.

“It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a little different situation,” Michigan assistant Howard Eisley said. “But we’ll make the best of it and do whatever we need to do to send them out properly.”

In the postgame handshake line at Wisconsin on February 20, Howard punched an opposing coach in the face. The next day, the Big Ten and Michigan announced that he was suspended for five games (the remainder of the regular season). He could not coach the team in games or practices and was banned from all team activities.

That didn’t mean he had to cut off all contact with his coaches and players, and he didn’t.

Phil Martelli, an assistant replacing the interim head coach, is in regular communication with his boss. After Michigan’s first game without Howard, point guard DeVante’ Jones said Howard sent the team a pregame message to stay hungry and focused.

Eisley, who has known Howard since his high school days and considers him a close friend, has regularly reached out. Eisley said their conversations “were totally unrelated to basketball.

“More than anything, I’m just checking in on him. Obviously, it’s a difficult time for him. What interests me for him is his well-being and the way he is handling this difficult period.

How’s Howard?

“He manages,” Eisley said. “Obviously he wants to be there, so it’s hard for him.”

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Two players, sophomores Hunter Dickinson and Jace Howard, visited Howard at his home on Tuesday, before the Wolverines hosted Michigan State.

Dickinson joked that he brought the head coach’s son to make the visit less awkward.

“He gave me some tips, things to look for,” Dickinson said. “But we were just talking about how we’ve been. That was the main reason to go see him – to talk about how he was doing. I know he gets a little crazy around the house, not being able to see his guys, because he loves us so much and we love him, so it’s hard for him not to be around us.

(For those wondering, the Big Ten have confirmed that such a visit would not violate the terms of Howard’s suspension.)

The Wolverines routed Michigan State to set their record 2-1 without Howard. While many, including this writer, assumed that Michigan’s results over the final five games of the regular season would land on Martelli’s official record, that is not the case. Michigan decided that Howard would be credited with wins and losses.

According to an NCAA policy guide, “If a head coach is suspended for one game or more by the school or conference, he is still eligible to receive wins or losses in his absence, but some institutions have chose to give the record to the interim coach.

When Louisville suspended Chris Mack for the first six games of this season, the games were credited to his replacement, Mike Pegues. When Tony Benford replaced Will Wade at LSU at the end of the 2018-19 season, the results were saved by Wade.

According to a Michigan basketball spokesperson, the results of the program are on Howard’s file.

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On Thursday, Michigan will host Iowa. Tipoff is scheduled for 9:07 p.m. ET with a pregame ceremony beginning at 8:35 p.m. Michigan will honor Eli Brooks and Jaron Faulds, although both were celebrated at last year’s ceremony. Brooks took advantage of the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver to return for a fifth season. Faulds is also in his fifth year of college, although he wore a red shirt one such year after transferring from Columbia.

Michigan will also honor DeVante’ Jones, a transfer graduate from Coastal Carolina. Jones was not honored at Coastal Carolina last season. His parents will not be in Ann Arbor on Thursday. His father, Troy, told MLive that Jones will walk the court with an 11-year-old fan who particularly liked Jones when he arrived in Michigan.

The program will also reward two traditional four-year-olds: Adrien Nuñez and Brandon Johns. (You can read more about Nuñez here; Johns did not respond to a text message requesting an interview.) Senior executives Bennett VanSolkema and Jalen Massey will also be honored.

(Update, 4:37 p.m.: Michigan announced senior guard Brandon Wade would also be honored.)

It’s unclear whether Martelli will simply replace Howard at the ceremony — at least that was when Eisley spoke to reporters Wednesday afternoon.

“To be completely honest with you, we haven’t even had a chance to talk about it yet,” Eisley said. “It’s going to be different. It’s going to be hard for our seniors as well as for Coach not being able to be there and see them play their last game at home.

Howard is the type of coach who cares deeply about his players. Although he left for the NBA before his own senior night at Michigan, he cherishes the two he experienced as a coach.

“I’ll never forget that day here,” Howard said after last year’s senior night, which ended with a win over Michigan State that clinched a Big Ten title. “He will always be remembered as something special.”

He will probably remember Thursday for a different reason.