When Juwan Howard looks at the opposing sideline, he will see a mentor and a protégé — who are more than just obstacles in the way of a trip to the Elite Eight for the Michigan coach.
Those two are: Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whom Howard considers a close friend, and Seminoles freshman Scottie Barnes, who developed into a five-star recruit and future pro in part due to Howard’s help.
Those relationships are a major subplot to arguably the best Sweet 16 matchup, No. 1 seed Michigan (22-4) versus No. 4 seed Florida State (18-6) in an East Region semifinal early Sunday evening at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Hamilton coached Howard in 2000-01 with the NBA’s Wizards, before Hamilton returned to the college ranks and eventually built Florida State into a perennial March contender. Their relationship only grew from there. Howard has visited Hamilton in Tallahassee, Fla., to talk basketball and considers him a dear friend, one of many coaches from whom he has learned in his journey from star player to coach. Hamilton has similar admiration for Howard, recalling how focused, detail-oriented and professional he was as a player; he has similar traits as a coach.
“He’s one of my favorite people in the business because I know what he stands for as a person,” Hamilton said. “He represents all the qualities that I think the people at Michigan can be very proud of.
“And I think they need to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride because he’s going to take them to maybe even higher than some of those places that Michigan basketball has been in the past.”
The bond Howard has with Barnes is similar, though different. Barnes played with two of Howard’s sons, Jace and Jett, at University School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and on the AAU circuit. Barnes has said Howard played a role in his development as a player and Howard said his family “loves” the 6-foot-9 Barnes and is thrilled to see him become a projected one-and-done lottery pick who was the ACC Freshman and Sixth Man of the Year.
“I’m so proud of him,” Howard said.
But those relationships won’t be a factor once the ball is tipped. Howard will be looking to out-coach Hamilton, to devise a plan to slow down Barnes and to continue the Wolverines’ March run. And he is certain Hamilton and Barnes feel the same way.
“I know that they’re looking forward to going out there and competing,” Howard said. “They don’t care if it’s me or no one else. They know that they have goals in front of them, and we have goals in front of us.
“We understand that Florida State is looking to spoil our goals and our dreams. After the game is over with, we’ll embrace the brotherhood, camaraderie, friendship, family. But right now, it’s about the competition.”
It should be a top-flight game, featuring two teams that have offensive attacks ranked in the top 15 in efficiency. Neither team, however, entered the tournament playing its best. But both won their two tournament games so far by comfortable margins, defeating quality opponents in the second round; Michigan knocked off No. 8 seed LSU and Florida State dispatched fifth-seeded Colorado. They each defend at a high level, possess plenty of depth and don’t rely on one player in particular.
There are several similarities between the two programs. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, given the two head coaches.
“Coach Hamilton will always be that friend, father figure that I will always lean on,” Howard said.