This weekend was the first time college basketball had the stage to itself this season without the NFL looming over everything, as it always does. So, what is the big story to come out of this weekend with the NBA on All-Star break and no more football to appease the masses?
Is it great-again Gonzaga earning the No. 1 overall seed in the selection committee’s February bracket reveal? Is it Auburn taking a surprising loss at Florida, which in turn jolted the Gators’ rickety NCAA Tournament hopes? Is it Kentucky and Kansas continuing to look like title contenders, or perhaps it’s Texas Tech’s continuation of a remarkable run in its first season after Chris Beard left for hated Texas?
It’s obviously none of those things.
Juwan Howard hitting Wisconsin assistant Joe Krabbenhoft in the head is the story, though this debacle is much more than one man assaulting another.
Howard is far from the only person at fault for the ugly scene that flared up at the end of No. 15 Wisconsin’s 77-63 win over Michigan on Sunday afternoon.
Howard is one of the sport’s biggest names coaching at one of the sport’s biggest programs. He’ll be the biggest piece of this story, the focal part who will probably receive as harsh a punishment as anyone. He should. That’s fair. Head coaches are supposed to set an example for their programs, and Howard failed in that charge Sunday.
What happened in Madison, Wisconsin, was an embarrassing display made even worse because, bafflingly, Howard did not walk back his actions or apologize for doing what he did when he spoke at the postgame press conference.
“I didn’t like the timeout they called, and I’m being totally honest with you,” Howard said. “I thought it was not necessary at that moment, especially with it being a large lead.”
Frustration spilled over Sunday for Howard and Michigan, which entered this game borderline in need of a win to maintain a positive bubble status after what’s been one of the more disappointing performances by any team this season. The 14-11 Wolverines were ranked in the top 10 in the preseason. It’s been rocky from the first week, however. Michigan lost at home to Seton Hall on Nov. 16, and its longest winning streak is three games, which happened just once. Year 3 of Howard’s tenure has been nervy.
An exposed nerve was pressed in Madison. Howard said the fact he was touched by “someone” is what “escalated” the situation. Still, to not hear contrition after that kind of scene was a shocking display of hubris. His boss, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, clearly disagrees.
It will be important to learn what Krabbenhoft may have said or done to cause Howard’s reaction. The footage we have does not make that part of this story clear. Krabbenhoft isn’t immediately absolved of this, and neither is Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, who did put his hands on Howard first in the handshake line as Michigan’s coach attempted to walk past him. Howard then pointed at Gard and touched him back. Words escalated the situation, then in charged Krabbenhoft. What did he say to Howard or anyone from Michigan to prompt Howard to lunge?
CBS Sports reached out to Krabbenhoft for clarity on his role in this; he deferred comment out of respect to Gard and Wisconsin athletic director Chris McIntosh.
“There’s no room, no space for conduct like that in any competition, much less a Big Ten competition,” McIntosh said at the postgame presser. “The Big Ten takes pride in sportsmanship. The Big Ten takes pride in acting with class. That didn’t happen today.”
Coaches from both teams are to blame. Wisconsin wants to lay it all on Michigan, but that’s not telling the full story. A lot of adults acted like temperamental children on Sunday afternoon.
“Swift and appropriate disciplinary action” is coming from the Big Ten, per a league statement.
If you want to know what actually started this, well, reader, it will come as little surprise to learn that ego is to blame. It was a laughable concoction of machismo and pride that lit the match for this fiasco. A few coaches (not from Michigan or Wisconsin) who spoke on background to CBS Sports on Sunday laid out what happened vs. what should have happened.
If Howard had not told his players to full-court press, if Gard hard not called a timeout to fire back at that press, none of this happens. “Code of the game” or some nonsense wasn’t adhered to in this situation, so both coaches got into their feelings.
With the game well in hand — Wisconsin led by double digits with less 25 seconds to go — Howard decided to keep at it and have his guys guarding 94 feet against the Badgers’ backups, who were just getting their garbage-time moment of non-glory. The scrubs weren’t equipped, nor prepared, to handle it.
In college, you’re allowed to call a timeout and have the 10-second clock reset to get the ball past the midcourt timeline. Gard said that’s why he made the call — to offset the press and reset the clock. It’s in Howard’s right to press, and it’s in Gard’s right to call a timeout to counteract the immediate effects of that press.
The score of the damn game was 76-61, and there was less than 20 seconds remaining. What the hell are we doing here?
Howard’s logic for being pissed off caves in on itself. If he thought the timeout was unnecessary because the game was already decided, why was he pressing in the first place?
So, both coaches are stewing as the handshake line takes form. Howard felt he had to let Gard know he wasn’t happy. Howard initiated the altercation with a comment he had to be sure Gard heard.
“I’ll remember that,” Howard said, per his and Gard’s accounts.
Gard could have let Howard say his peace and blow by him. He should have. But he stopped Howard and made the mistake of putting his hands on Howard.
To hear Gard tell it, he was going to explain to Howard the resetting of the 10-second clock. In Gard’s mind, perhaps Howard — an NBA lifer until he got the Michigan job less than three years ago — didn’t realize the rule was different in college. That’s not giving Howard enough credit, though.
What’s more, wouldn’t Phil Martelli, who has coached for decades and is Howard’s top assistant, at least have informed Howard of this during the timeout? Plus, Gard was fired up with a quickness, too. He was smarting from that press. He’s not without fault as he hardly lubricated the situation.
From there, it went from scuffle to a brouhaha. Krabbenhoft got in the mix (to protect Gard? his players? That’s unclear). Howard was triggered and then the players started scuffling.
It could have been worse. Michigan players Moussa Diabate and Terrance Williams can be seen throwing hands. The same is true of Wisconsin’s Jahcobi Neath. They’ll all likely be suspended. A Wisconsin staffer took the moment to execute an emphatic — perhaps to the point of being practiced in many a mirror over the years — a D-Generation X “crotch chop” that will go down in program lore.
For Howard to react the way he did was alarming but not without precedent. He had to be restrained from going after Maryland coach Mark Turgeon during last year’s Big Ten Tournament. He was not suspended for that. For this, he will be. Multiple games. If it’s for the remainder of the season, that would be appropriate.
Some are calling for Howard to be fired. The Michigan administration can do whatever it pleases, but that would likely be a step too far. Howard doesn’t need or deserve to be fired what he did. Another incident like this, and sure, he would probably have to go. Two confrontations in two years is short of a trend, but it’s also not a good sign. The university, the sport cannot have this again.
Two things can be true at once. It’s fair to say that if Howard did not go after Krabbenhoft, the situation would not have turned into the biggest news story in sports on a Sunday that also included the NBA All-Star Game, Daytona 500 and Genesis Invitational. It’s also inaccurate to put all the fault for the fight solely on Howard.
If the Big Ten handles this as it should, the punishments and blame will not lay solely at Howard’s feet.