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Previewing Michigan women’s basketball’s Sweet 16 game against Baylor

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The Michigan women look for another upset in March Madness.

Michigan v Tennessee Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

It’s time to officially welcome the Michigan women’s basketball team to the national stage.

Saturday afternoon, the sixth-seeded Wolverines will take on second-seeded Baylor in their first Sweet 16 game in program history.

Michigan has never been this far. All-time, it’s lost 106 more games than it’s won. Meanwhile, the Bears have won 93 percent of their games over the last 11 years, have won two national championships and have made the Sweet 16 every year during that span. Baylor is ... well, Baylor. Historically speaking, this is David vs. Goliath.

For the Wolverines to upset the Bears would send shockwaves throughout the entirety of the women’s college basketball world. It would not at all be hyperbole to say that a win of that magnitude would announce Michigan’s arrival.

The Wolverines have a National Player of the Year candidate in Naz Hillmon. They have a strong complementary scorer in Leigha Brown and rock-solid role players in Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown. They dispatched a strong mid-major in Florida Gulf Coast, as well as another usual power in Tennessee, doing so with surprising ease — especially considering they were down starting point guard Amy Dilk, who did not make the trip to San Antonio due to an undisclosed medical issue.

A long COVID-related pause between January and February, among other reasons, contributed to Michigan likely being under-seeded somewhat. So in some respects, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised by what the Wolverines accomplished last weekend. But Baylor is a whole different animal.

The Bears are playing their best basketball as of late. They’ve won 19 straight games, including a 90-48 obliteration of Virginia Tech in the second round. They’re fifth in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 82.6 points per game, and allowing just 54.2 points per game (12th nationally). Michigan, by contrast, scores 75.3 and allows 64.2 on average.

NaLyssa Smith is Baylor’s top scorer and counterpart to Hillmon. Smith is a 6-foot-2 junior forward averaging 18.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. Like Hillmon, she doesn’t shoot 3-pointers — just 12 attempts on the year — but she’s accurate from the stripe (79.3 percent on 150 attempts).

In the backcourt, the Bears boast plenty of experience, being led by seniors DiDi Richards, Moon Ursin and DiJonai Carrington. Richards, at 6-foot-2, brings plenty of size to the point guard position, where she’s much more of a distributor (6.1 assists per game) than she is a scorer (6.5 ppg). She hasn’t taken a 3-pointer this season.

Ursin is just 5-foot-6 but averages 12.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and also knows how to dish it out, with 111 assists to just 45 turnovers on the year. She’s shooting 38 percent from 3-point distance.

Carrington, a transfer from Stanford, is Baylor’s sixth woman. She’s by far the Bears’ highest-volume outside shooter (29.6 percent on 125 attempts) and averages 13.6 points per game.

Trinity Oliver (4.6 ppg), a 5-foot-9 redshirt junior, starts over Carrington, mostly to give the lineup balance and defensive presence. Sarah Andrews, a 5-foot-6 freshman guard, is out there to shoot. She’s 26-of-67 from downtown this year and has only been to the free-throw line five times.

Upfront, Baylor will pair Smith with Queen Egbo, a 6-foot-3 junior center who anchors the Bears’ defense with her rim protection. Egbo (11.3 ppg, 8.6 RPG) can score, but her strength is on the defensive end, where she averages nearly two blocks per contest. Her backup is Hannah Gusters, a 6-foot-5 freshman averaging 5.1 points in 10.6 minutes per game and shooting 64 percent.

Caitlin Bickle (4.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is a 6-foot forward with some floor-stretching ability and can also rebound. Jordyn Oliver, a 5-foot-10 guard, averages 4.0 points per game, and Jaden Owens, a 5-foot-8 guard, averages 2.4.

It might seem like Baylor has a balanced rotation when just looking at their season stats, but much of that’s because the Bears rarely play close games. In games against teams within a reasonable distance of their caliber, Kim Mulkey shortens her rotation substantially, relying almost entirely on Smith, Ursin, Richards, Carrington, Egbo and Trinity Oliver. In the Bears’ 66-55 win over Texas in the Big 12 Tournament earlier this month, those six played 191 of 200 possible minutes (Oliver played just six). Everyone else’s role is situational.

On defense, Baylor is stifling on the perimeter and in the paint. Thanks in large part to Egbo, the Bears rank 19th in the country in blocks per game. They allow opponents to shoot just 31.7 percent from the field against them, which is the best figure in the nation. They also lead the nation in rebounding margin (49.1 to 29.4).

One thing the Bears don’t do is shoot 3-pointers. They take just 10.8 per game on the season, hitting them at a 33.5 percent clip. Andrews, Carrington and Ursin are really their only shooters at all. Baylor will look to overwhelm opponents inside, largely with Smith, and get to the rim too.

Michigan’s biggest advantage against the Bears might be the fact that the best player on the court will be wearing maize and blue. But perhaps the biggest reason the Wolverines are here is that they proved they didn’t need to completely ride Hillmon against Florida Gulf Coast and Tennessee.

Against the Eagles, maybe the most prolific 3-point shooting team in the country, it was the Wolverines that got going from outside, hitting 8-for-20. Leigha Brown went 12-for-16 with 28 points, while Hillmon had a “quiet” 14-point, 13-rebound game. Against the Vols, Brown once again starred, scoring 23 points on 11-of-11 free-throw shooting, while Hailey Brown knocked down 4-of-6 from long distance. Hillmon, meanwhile, scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.

Everyone’s getting into the act now in one way or another. Danielle Rauch, who’s stepped in at point guard in place of Dilk, had five steals against Tennessee. (Dilk’s status is still murky). Johnson, the Wolverines’ defensive stopper on the perimeter, is averaging nine rebounds per game during the NCAA Tournament. Maddie Nolan has knocked down key 3-pointers off the bench as well.

As good as Hillmon is, almost all of her offense comes within 5-10 feet of the basket or at the free-throw line, and it’s hard for a player like her to carry a team without any help. But right now, that’s exactly what Hillmon’s getting.

The 2020-21 campaign has been Michigan’s most successful ever, hands-down. The Wolverines might not be at the level to slay a giant like Baylor just yet. But if they play with the balance and confidence they displayed in the first two rounds of the tournament, they’ll stand a chance.

The last time these two teams met, in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Baylor won 80-58. Michigan’s come far in a short amount of time. Saturday afternoon, it has another chance to find out just how far.