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With or without Smith, Wolverines take on No. 4 Notre Dame

Tracy Ko
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By Lev Facher, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 13, 2013

Though there’s never a good time for a team to lose its leading scorer, the day before playing a top-15 opponent in an NBA arena is possibly the worst time. The Michigan women’s basketball team found that out firsthand over Thanksgiving weekend, when junior guard Shannon Smith suffered a back injury a day prior to an encounter with No. 15 LSU at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Wolverines may face a similar disadvantage on Saturday, when they take on No. 4 Notre Dame in the nightcap of the first men’s-women’s basketball doubleheader of the year at Crisler Center. Smith sat out consecutive games against the Lady Tigers as well as Virginia and looked shaky off the bench Wednesday against Eastern Michigan, at one point clutching her back in obvious pain after being fouled on a 3-point attempt.

But Smith’s absence hasn’t hobbled the Wolverines as much as her typical offensive contribution might have suggested. After going toe to toe with LSU throughout the night, the Wolverines couldn’t pull off the shocker, losing 64-62 after failing to get a stop in the game’s waning moments.

The fact that Michigan played a competitive 40 minutes is impressive; it’s all the more so considering how different the game’s dynamic would have been with Smith involved. Michigan followed the loss with back-to-back, double-digit wins.

Senior forward Val Driscoll, normally the first player off the bench for Michigan, has rounded out the starting lineup in Smith’s place. Driscoll stands 6-foot-4, and Barnes Arico might have opted to go with a bigger lineup anyway against the Lady Tigers, and wouldn’t mind doing the same thing against the Fighting Irish. LSU and Notre Dame’s rosters each feature four players who stand at least 6-foot-3.

But according to Barnes Arico, the bigger lineup isn’t necessarily an advantage.

“I actually thought it hurt us (against Eastern Michigan),” Barnes Arico said. “They were quicker.”

The larger inside presence has opened up room on the wings, especially for sophomore guard Madison Ristovski. The Wolverines turned their lack of size into an advantage last month against Pittsburgh’s 6-foot-11 Marvadene Anderson, who repeatedly failed to move up on ball screens and left freshman guard Siera Thompson open for numerous mid-range jumpers.

Notre Dame’s frontcourt is likely more mobile than Anderson, and should be able to close off open looks, but Smith, Thompson and Ristovski have found room to shoot all year long.

Just as intimidating as the Fighting Irish’s size is the almost uniform distribution of their scoring. Five players on their roster are averaging double-digit point totals, including senior guard Kayla McBride, who also leads the team in assists.

Stopping Notre Dame on defense won’t be easy. Michigan’s best chance at winning, along with a healthy dose of national recognition, likely lies with its ability to put up big numbers on the offensive end.

More than its rebounding woes or occasionally porous defense, it’s a turnover problem that has been the biggest thorn in Michigan’s side.

“A lot of it is due to our inexperience at those positions,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s something we need to work on.”

The Wolverines gave the ball up 21 times against Eastern Michigan, but if they can cut down on turnovers, Ristovski and Thompson will have every opportunity to knock down shots from the outside and turn the game into the high-scoring affair that Michigan has shown it’s best suited to win.