ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Former Michigan basketball star Chris Webber spoke to Local 4 about his friend Juwan Howard’s current team. He spoke about Michigan’s Big Ten title and Final Four chances, as well as the NBA prospects on the roster and the possible impact of the two-week shutdown.
‘I’m proud of them’
Webber currently works as a broadcaster and an analyst covering the NBA, but that doesn’t mean he misses any Michigan hoops.
“I’ve watched closely every game,” Webber said. “I think they’re tough. I mean, as I told Juwan, I know he’s proud of them, but from the outside, I’m so proud of them.”
Webber was one of the top high school players in the nation when he committed to Michigan out of Detroit Country Day High School. He averaged 17.4 points, 10 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.5 blocks per game over two seasons as a Wolverine from 1991-1993.
As a former power forward, it’s no surprise Webber is most impressed by Michigan’s front court.
“I love our big boys,” he said. “Our guards have always had hearts, they’re tough. The forwards (also). But our big fellas, man, they’re coming in. They’re playing well — not just settling outside, dominating inside. Getting offensive boards, shooting threes. They’ll dunk on you. They’re tough.”
True freshman Hunter Dickinson has seized most of the minutes at center for Michigan, and he’s averaging 15.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He’s already taken home Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors five times.
But it’s not just Dickinson.
“I really like the heart of our team,” Webber said. “At the end of the day, the teams that you want are the guys with heart and commitment. Juwan’s told me personally he has those guys, and he’s just so proud of their character on and off the court. That’s what’s dope about that situation.
“Excited about Juwan. Excited about this team, with only one loss. Excited about the heart and soul that they have, and can’t wait to see how this thing ends.”
Michigan is sitting at 13-1 this season and atop the Big Ten standings. Monday’s new AP poll saw the Wolverines jump to No. 4 in the country.
I asked Webber if he thinks Michigan is good enough to win the Big Ten or make a run to the Final Four.
“C’mon man, I think they have a chance to win it all, and they better feel the same way, too, and I know they do,” Webber said. “Now, you’ve got to go earn it. But you’ve got to believe it first. I know you can’t be around Juwan and not believe. I’m not going to speak for the team, (but) I know you can’t be around him and not believe and then work as hard as he asks you to work.”
Michigan was a fringe top 25 team when the season began and looked shaky in a few early contests against Oakland, Penn State and others.
But after a long break in December, the team came out firing. To kick off 2021, they demoralized three straight ranked teams at the Crisler Center.
Michigan led No. 19 Northwestern by 29 points and won by 19.
Michigan led No. 16 Minnesota by 37 points and won by 25.
Michigan led No. 9 Wisconsin by 40 points and won by 23.
College basketball experts around the sport have started to notice Michigan, and Webber thinks the team could beat anybody.
“They’d better believe it, because they can,” Webber said. “They’ve already been the first team to beat three (straight) ranked teams (by at least 17 points), and I saw the game we lost to Minnesota. I saw that game and, you know, it’s hard to play in The Barn. A little weird. We’re good, though. I really like our team. We’re good, man.”
Right now, the greatest concern for Michigan is a two-week shutdown sparked by the spread of a COVID-19 variant throughout the athletic department.
Student-athletes from other sports tested positive for the B117 variant, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a recommendation to shut all teams down for two weeks. The University of Michigan took that recommendation as a mandate, so it appears the basketball team will miss four straight games.
If Michigan remains off the court for two weeks, how could that affect the hot streak?
“You know what, I’m not sure, very honestly,” Webber said. “I’m not sure. Juwan knows the personality of his guys. He knows how to keep them upbeat, focused, so I’m really not sure.”
Webber got an idea of what it’s like to play basketball during the pandemic when he covered the end of the 2019-2020 NBA season.
“After being in the bubble in Orlando, I really respect the commitment of these guys to kind of isolate themselves from family and friends for the greater good of the team, and so, I know they’re tough guys, and committed,” Webber said.
If Michigan doesn’t return to the court for two weeks, games at Penn State, against Indiana, at Northwestern and against Michigan State will have been postponed.
Michigan’s NBA prospects
Michigan has sent several players to the NBA over the last decade: Caris LeVert, Duncan Robinson, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Moe Wagner, Nik Stauskas, D.J. Wilson, Ignas Brazdeikis, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Poole, Mitch McGary and Darius Morris.
Webber believes that list will continue to grow from the current roster.
“Yeah, definitely, of course,” he said. “There’s pro talent, definitely pro talent on that team.
Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner are likely to be NBA prospects within the next year or two. Dickinson and others could join that mix down the line.
“I think it is more than one or two,” Webber said. “More than two. I don’t want to put that pressure on anybody, but there’s some guys on that team, and there are more than three that are gonna make a living playing professional ball around the world. Some talented guys, as long as they keep their nose to the ground and work hard.”
Juwan Howard’s recruiting success
In his first year as a college head coach, Howard landed Dickinson and five-star Isaiah Todd, though the latter eventually ended up heading to the G League. He also brought in top 100 freshmen Zeb Jackson and Terrance Williams and crucial transfers Chaundee Brown and Mike Smith.
His encore? Only the currently ranked No. 1 class in the nation, which includes five-stars Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate, four-stars Kobe Bufkin, Frankie Collins and Isaiah Barnes, and three-star Will Tschetter.
Why has Howard been able to hit the ground running so easily on the recruiting trail?
“Well, one, because of his work ethic, his knowledge of the game,” Webber said. “He’s played with Pat Riley, coached with Pat Riley, played with LeBron.
“I spent time at the University of Michigan, two years, but I played with Juwan longer for the Bullets, the Wizards that we played. If you played with him, you knew he was just a great teammate. And because they know how hard the Fab Five worked.
“Their parents are the ages of us, and we know their parents. We know the basketball community. We never left supporting kids and their families, and so when Juwan walks into a house and says he’s going to help raise their son, you know that he really means it because he was already doing this on his off days in the summer, so this is who he is and this doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
Will Webber be back at Crisler soon?
Webber returned to the University of Michigan at long last in 2018, when Jim Harbaugh had him as an honorary captain for a football game.
This year, he had plans to attend a practice before the pandemic struck.
“Actually, before the pandemic started, I was talking to Juwan about coming to a practice, and so, definitely going to be there, support the guys,” Webber said. “I want to be around them. They inspire me, so I definitely want to get a chance to say, ‘What’s up?’ to them, work out with them a little bit and, you know, just give them a little bit of encouragement. So I’m definitely excited about getting to a game.”
It’ll have a little extra meaning when Webber does return to the Crisler Center, since one of his former teammates and close friends is leading the program.
“With Juwan, I’m texting him before, during and after every game, and he’s just a friend of mine, so it’s going to be awesome to support our university,” Webber said. “He’s the one coaching, and it’s just crazy man. Good times, right now.”
Shoutout to Harbaugh
Speaking of his return to campus, Webber still hasn’t forgotten that Harbaugh extended an olive branch two years ago.
“Shoutout to Coach Harbaugh, because he really invited me when it was unpopular and made me feel welcome at home,” Webber said. “We share the No. 4. We shared time at the university. We both love the university, and so, I really want to thank him and the football organization for having me. He asked me personally.”