The game doesn’t know.
At least that’s the theory the Michigan women’s basketball team hopes to prove in what would be the most substantial upset in program history.
That’s the theory endorsed by Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins, who has provided inspiration for the women’s basketball team this year.
Hutchins, the all-time winningest coach at Michigan, bestowed her 29 years of experience on the Michigan women’s basketball team earlier this season. On Sunday, senior guard Jenny Ryan recalled the most influential piece of Hutchins’ advice — the opponent may be ranked higher on paper, but the game doesn’t know that.
The eighth-seeded Wolverines will face off against top-seeded Stanford on Tuesday for the chance to make the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance. And if Michigan’s senior-led squad wasn’t already an underdog, its attempt to upset one of the nation’s best teams will occur on the Cardinal’s home court, Maples Pavilion.
“We’re going to prepare for Stanford like we would any game, and we have a lot of confidence in each other to beat any team in this country,” Ryan said. “The game doesn’t know.”
The theory worked last December for Michigan’s volleyball team which, in a similar situation, defeated the second-ranked Cardinal on its way to the Final Four.
But even if the game truly doesn’t know, Stanford junior forward Chiney Ogwumike will make it evident why the Cardinal deserve the top seed in the Spokane Region. Ogwumike is one of the nation’s premier players, averaging 22.6 points and 12.9 rebounds per game.
If there were a group that wasn’t concerned with rankings or seeding, it would be the Wolverines. First-year coach Kim Barnes Arico’s squad has tended to play up to its competition this season, including a win against then No. 13 Purdue on the road.
The Wolverines have faced dominant athletes such as Duke center Elizabeth Williams and Penn State guard Maggie Lucas, though Michigan has yet to compete against an athlete as talented as Ogwumike.
Forward Joslyn Tinkle holds down the interior for Stanford, averaging 11.6 points per game alongside Ogwumike. The Cardinal’s backcourt is dominated by guard Amber Orrange, who leads the team with 4.1 assists per game while chipping in 10.6 points per contest.
Michigan can expect Stanford to stray away from the traditional motion offense while relying on Orrange to distribute and play off screens with Ogwumike and Tinkle.
“(On Sunday) they did a lot of two-man game late in the game, which really exposed Tulsa,” Barnes Arico said. “We know that it’s going to be difficult, but like these kids said, the game doesn’t know.”
In their first-round matchup with Villanova, the Wolverines benefited from Barnes Arico’s experience against the Wildcats.
Barnes Arico’s prior interaction with Stanford should again play a huge role in the Wolverines’ preparation for the Cardinal. Two years ago, Barnes Arico’s Red Storm was defeated by Stanford 75-49 in the second round at Maples.
“I’m sure I’m going to go through my notes the same way (as Villanova) tonight to see what we have done against Stanford,” Barnes Arico said. “They play the same offense and do a lot of the same things that they’ve traditionally done. They shoot the ball exceptionally well.”
Stanford’s 18-game winning streak doesn’t make Michigan’s task any easier, not to mention the Cardinal’s seven-game unbeaten record at home during the tournament. But the Wolverines are a streaky team that has the weapons to overcome expectations.
“We have (senior guard) Kate Thompson on our team who can light it up, and we have (senior forward) Rachel Sheffer and (senior guard) Sam Arnold,” Ryan said. “Ten threes isn’t out of the question for us.”
That’s no exaggeration. Michigan has lived and died beyond the arc all season helping the squad achieve impressive victories over Michigan State, but that has also lead to unexpected losses, such as to Ohio State. If the Wolverines come out of the gates with the hot hand shooting and contain Ogwumike in the post, they could potentially earn their way to the Sweet 16.
And if there is any extra motivation needed to inspire an upset of one of the best teams in the nation, an extra day basking in the Palo Alto sunshine wouldn’t be a bad one.
“I’m not ready to go home,” said senior forward Nya Jordan. “We’re in California, so I’ll stay here as long as I can.”