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A Program on the Precipice: Michigan Women’s Basketball Preview

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Michigan is coming off of back-to-back NCAA Tourney appearances, and will look to make it three straight for the first time in program history. A talented young core should be locked and loaded to take them there.

UM Photography, D. Oatridge

In 2017, the Michigan women’s basketball team raised the first banner in program history to the Crisler Arena rafters. Granted, that banner was for a WNIT Championship, not a conference championship or a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Still, for a team that is sometimes an afterthought at school full of powerhouse athletic programs, winning the WNIT was a watershed moment, one they were able to build upon by making the NCAA Tournament a year later. It was head coach Kim Barnes Arico’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since her first season, and it seemed like things were just getting started.

Until they didn’t. Michigan started the 2018-19 season by going 1-3 against ranked non-conference opponents, and opened the Big Ten season a disastrous 2-4. On a Sunday afternoon in January, almost 5,500 people braved the cold to watch the Wolverines try to save their season. At the end of the third quarter, rival Ohio State led 46-37, a 9-point lead that matched the Wolverines’ total offensive output in the third. It was extended into a 12-point lead early in the fourth, and Michigan’s chance at a second straight NCAA Tournament bid was on the ropes less than halfway through the conference season.

Michigan went into the game needing a statement, something to look back at for the rest of the season and say “We did that. We can do this.” Slowly but surely, Michigan chipped away at the Buckeye lead. They made the extra pass. They cleaned up on the glass, out-rebounding OSU 11-5 that quarter. In one stretch, they held Ohio State to 2 points in 7:30. Naz Hillmon hit the put-back to give Michigan its first lead of the fourth quarter with just seven seconds left, and they had their statement. Michigan won the game, putting the NCAA Tournament back in its crosshairs.

They lost the next two, but finished the regular season by winning eight of their final nine, earning a Big Ten Tournament double bye as the fourth seed. In Indianapolis they lost in the B1G semifinals by one point against national #8 Maryland. They were safely in on Selection Sunday, earning an 8 seed. Michigan blew the doors off of Kansas State before falling in the second round against #1 Louisville. While being seeded into a second round matchup with a 1 seed was disappointing, making it that far after how the season began was a triumph.

Michigan lost two important seniors over the offseason, Nicole Munger and Hallie Thome. Thome had started every game of her Michigan career, while Munger was a significant contributor all four years, and a starter both her junior and senior seasons. Michigan will have to replace both their minutes and their scoring, as they led the starters (though, oddly, not the team, in scoring). Starter and Sophomore Deja Church also transferred to DePaul. The Wolverines made one significant coaching hire, poaching Toyelle Wilson from defending national champion Baylor. Wilson was hired as recruiting coordinator, having been a major participant in Baylor’s high-powered recruiting operation.

Michigan has already won two games this season, winning their opening buy games against Western Michigan and Bradley by 20 points each. They’ll head to Ohio this weekend, for a pair of games against Kent St. and Akron, both on the Zips’ campus. They’ll then come home for the tough portion of the non-conference season, beginning with a marquee home matchup against national power Notre Dame.

Between the youth and departure of three starters, it’d be easy to look at this team as one that might be in a holding pattern, content to repeat at last year’s “second tier Big Ten, mid-bracket seed” level. To be fair, having an identical performance to last year would complete maybe the best three-year stretch in program history. But the young core, led by four sophomores, has gone through trials that make veterans. The majority of the roster has never missed the NCAA Tournament. This is a program primed for growth.

When the Michigan Wolverines hit the court this season they’ll be trying to prove one thing: This is no longer a program that rebuilds. This is a program that reloads.

THE STARTERS

Any preview of the Wolverines has to start with Naz Hillmon. The sophomore’s accolades are already numerous; she won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Big Ten Sixth Athlete of the Year last year, and was named to the All-Big Ten First Team. She led the Wolverines in scoring last year despite coming off the bench, averaging 13.1 per game. She won a Gold Medal at the FIBA U-19 World Cup this year, scoring two points and grabbing three boards in overtime of the final. She endearingly wears 00.

To drop the mask for a minute, the truth is I’ve only been doing this thing where I know a lot about non-revenue sports for about a year now. I attended a volleyball or women’s basketball or soccer game here and there, but last year was when I decided to really go all-in. When I went to my first WBB game of last year (the aforementioned OSU game), I didn’t know much about the team, and had never heard of this freshman wearing 00. But she’s impossible not to notice. She plays stifling defense, she goes after every rebound like the game depends on it, she’s a scorer but likes to make the extra pass anyways. You know when you’re a kid and it takes you about three plays to pick which one is your favorite player? Naz is that kind of player. As soon as she steps onto the court you can’t miss her energy. If nothing else, watch a ton of Wolverines women’s basketball this season because you will not regret the opportunity to watch Naz Hillmon.

The secondary scoring threat this year should come from guard Amy Dilk. A sophomore, Dilk spent the bulk of her freshman season in the starting lineup. Last year Dilk was primarily a distributor, leading the team in assists. This year she’ll need to keep the ball more, and though the season is young her 25 points are just 1 behind Hillmon’s 26. Dilk is well-equipped at the other end of the court as well, and led the team in steals last year. Dilk’s 12 points and 11 rebounds against WMU opened the season with a double-double, and she was a rebound shy of matching the feat against Bradley.

The only other returning starter is junior Hailey Brown. With the seniors gone, Brown is the only two-year starter on the roster, though she only played 9 more minutes (total) than Hillmon last year. Brown will provide a deep threat, as last year she was one of the only players who consistently put it up from beyond the arc. Brown hit 35% from downtown (second only to the graduated Munger), and her 105 attempts were more than double anyone else who remains on the roster.

The final two starters are seniors, though prior to this season neither had spent a significant portion of their career as starters. Akienreh Johnson and Kayla Robbins will be tasked with providing a veteran presence for the otherwise young starting lineup. Johnson and Robbins typically followed Hillmon off the bench last season. Johnson is well-positioned to expand her role, as her 2019 44.2 FG% trails only Hillmon of the remaining players. Robbins length makes her a defensive asset.

THE BENCH

Michigan has a very young bench, but the Wolverines brought in a strong recruiting class that should be immediately ready to contribute significant minutes.

In the first two games and the exhibition against Northwood, the first player of the bench has been Izabel Varejao. Varejao is 6’4” and the only listed center on Michigan’s roster. She averaged 14.1 points as a senior and ESPNW had her ranked as the 19th ranked freshman in her class. (She is Anderson’s niece.)

Varejao has been closely followed by a fellow freshman, Michelle Sidor. A guard, Sidor was #67 overall in the ESPNW Top 100, Michigan’s best ranked recruit of the class. So far Sidor is playing sixth athlete minutes, and hit double digits with 11 points in the game against Bradley.

Emily Kiser and Danielle Ruach will both be sophomore bench options. They averaged about five minutes each as freshmen, and will look to take the sophomore leap. With minutes available, if either one becomes a reliable bench contributor, the added depth will be much appreciated. Junior guard Priscilla Smeenge will also look to break into the rotation after limited minutes her first two years.

Michigan’s final recruit was Maddie Nolan, who averaged 21.5 points as a high school junior but was limited her senior season due to injury.

FIVE GAMES TO ATTEND

Michigan women’s basketball games are a blast. They’re more intimate than men’s games, there’s always excellent seats available in general admission, and they’re only $6. If you’re looking to attend some of the biggest games this season, these are the ones you should circle.

  1. Notre Dame, Saturday Nov 23, 1pm: Michigan’s first big home game of the season is maybe the biggest game of their non-conference season. Notre Dame isn’t projected to be the powerhouse it’s been, and has already taken a loss against Tennessee. However, anytime you welcome a coach with two national championships and nine Final Fours into your building, it’s a big deal. Muffett McGraw’s program might be in a “rebuilding year”, but they’re still in contention to win the ACC. In what is likely to be a matchup of ranked teams, Michigan has a chance to use this game to announce their arrival to the national stage. It’s the same day as the Indiana football game but with a 1pm tip, if you live in Ann Arbor I promise you will be home by kickoff.
  2. Syracuse, Thu Dec 5, 9pm: If Michigan can beat Notre Dame (and possibly if it does not) this will also likely be a matchup of ranked teams. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge comes to Crisler this year, with a visit from an Orange squad that finished #12 last year (but got bounced in the second round of the tournament, suffering a home upset against South Dakota State). Syracuse is currently #20, and will provide the perfect measuring stick of how far the young roster has come.
  3. Michigan State, Sun Jan 5, Noon: MSU swept the Wolverines last year, with the East Lansing leg the only blemish on their season-ending 8 of 9 streak. KBA has a 4-11 overall record against the Spartans. This game is only the third game of the non-conference season. If Michigan wants to make a statement to the rest of the Big Ten that they’re here to make some noise, the rivalry matchup is the game to do it in.
  4. Maryland, Sun Jan 12, Noon: Michigan will hope that it is in the conversation for a Big Ten Championship. But even if Michigan has a really strong season, there’s a pretty good chance that that conversation still begins and ends with Maryland. Since joining the Big Ten, Maryland has won the conference regular season title four of five times, and is a mainstay in the national top 10. Still, last year’s Big Ten Tournament game came down to the final possession, with Michigan missing a shot for the win. Maryland could be a top 10, or even top 5, team. This would be the upset of the season for the Wolverines.
  5. Indiana, Sun Mar 1, TBA: Senior day at Crisler Arena will provide Michigan one last chance to get whatever it needs going into the postseason. Hopefully Michigan will be safely in the NCAA Tourney, but projections have Michigan and Indiana on roughly equal footing in the top third of the Big Ten. If Michigan needs a little RPI boost or is a game out of the double bye, this game will be it’s last chance to get it.

THE PROJECTIONS

Michigan opened the season by sneaking into the polls at #25. After spending the whole season out of the polls last year, the ranking shows confidence in our young core. While that is on the fringes of the poll, wins in Akron this weekend and a win over Notre Dame should send them high enough up the polls that a loss wouldn’t immediately drop them out.

The Big Ten projections are split somewhat. Within the Big Ten, Maryland is in a tier of its own, and Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Indiana, and Rutgers are the teams most likely to find their way into the second tier and the double bye. While the coaches picked Michigan to finish fourth in the Big Ten, the media picked the Wolverines to finish second, just behind the Terrapins.

ESPN’s Charlie Creme is the preeminent bracketologist in the women’s game. In Creme’s preseason bracketology, he had the Wolverines with a sixth seed. This was tied for third in the Big Ten, behind projected 2-seed Maryland and 4-seed Minnesota, and on the same line as Indiana. This would be Michigan’s best seed since the NCAA took over the women’s basketball tournament in 1982. It’s a tall task, but at least one national observer thinks they’re up to it.

THE BOTTOM LINE

At the beginning of her eighth year, it is clear that the athletic department’s trust in Coach Kim Barnes Arico has begun to pay off. Slowly but surely, Michigan has climbed its way into being a Big Ten contender. To build a basketball program takes time and patience, and KBA has been given the space to work. Now, national and local prognostications are taking notice at what she’s built, and believe that it is Michigan’s turn to step into the limelight. It’s time for Michigan to prove them right. It’s time for Michigan to reload.