Brad Whipple: NCAA Tournament next step in Michigan's revival
Yes, the Michigan women’s basketball team made it to the WNIT semifinals last season. Yes, it was great for the Wolverines to have an extra month to practice, compete and extend the seniors’ careers. And yes, Michigan was closer than ever before to hanging its first banner.
But the important part of that postseason run in April is that it pumped life back into the program itself. For a team that dropped too many one- or two-possession games during the regular season and suffered through some major inconsistencies, the WNIT gave the Wolverines a chance to prove they had the tenacity to beat quality opponents.
Though the WNIT was a second chance for Michigan, it’s no longer the goal. During the team’s media day in October, players made it clear that their focus was on the NCAA Tournament.
Junior guard Siera Thompson has had enough of the alternative.
“The last two years, I’ve been in the WNIT,” Thompson said. “It’s cool to still be playing in March or whatever, but we all obviously want to be in the NCAA Tournament. We weren’t satisfied with being in the WNIT. That’s our goal this year: not to let games slip away, like we did last year in conference.
“We don’t want the minimum. We want everything we can get.”
According to junior guard Danielle Williams, that is exactly the theme of the season: carpe omnia, which translates from Latin to “take everything” or “take it all.” There is an even larger emphasis on becoming “the hardest-working team in America,” but carpe omnia is sparking a higher level of motivation and competition within the team.
Considering that the Wolverines had all but won the WNIT Semifinal against UCLA before a few critical errors gave the Bruins a path into the championship, it makes sense that Michigan is focused on taking it all. Instead, the Wolverines learned what it was like to lose it all.
“Last year, we were so close (to making the NCAA Tournament), so that also drives us,” said sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty. “I mean, we played against some great teams in the WNIT, and we should’ve beat UCLA. I believe that we had the game. That shows not only to me, but to the rest of the team, that we can compete with the best out there.”
Added Williams: “We understand that on any night, we can compete with the best if we come out and play the way we can play. … We define (carpe omnia) as win the day: Win whatever you’re doing; compete with whatever you’re doing, whether it’s on the court or off the court. Be the best that you can be.”
The Wolverines did just that in their 109-39 win over Ferris State in Sunday’s exhibition game. Under fourth-year head coach Kim Barnes Arico, Michigan is loaded with underclassmen who are ripe to make huge leaps in their career. Barnes Arico certainly doesn’t lack options to choose from.
As for the returners, they’re still carrying a jolt of energy left behind by the WNIT run. Maybe they still hold a bit of anger, which has fueled their drive toward reaching carpe omnia.
“We were so angry and so upset the way that we had gone out of the Big Ten Tournament,” said senior guard Madison Ristovski. “We carried over that anger and put it into practice and put it into those games, and try to make the end of the year better.”
If that mentality holds firm, the team can be successful by the time the Big Ten schedule rolls around.
Sure, the Wolverines are at an enormous disadvantage without Cyesha Goree, Nicole Elmblad and Shannon Smith. The team is going to have to go the extra mile even to come close to making up for the production the senior class left behind on the court, but Ristovski said she doesn’t see why freshmen can’t do it, adding that the returners may even have to inhibit new roles.
For Barnes Arico, now is the time to make some important changes, the time to take her best returning players and evolve them into new type of players that they couldn’t have been last season, all while nurturing the development of key players like freshman center Hallie Thome.
It’s a unique time for the program, and Barnes Arico is the right person to be at the head of it — the program recently extended her contract through the 2020-21 season.
This time around, the WNIT isn’t going to cut it. Only an appearance in the NCAA Tournament will, which is exactly what the team talked about during its fall break retreat.
“What rose up is, ‘Why not us, why not now?’ ” Ristovski said. “The possibility of a championship is in our grasp. It’s just what we do every day in practice that’s going to decipher whether we win or lose (crucial games).”
Why not now? Now is a better time than ever before. Michigan is well-equipped with a variety of talented returners, a nearly undefeated freshmen class and a veteran coaching staff.
The Wolverines are in the midst of a revival, one that could make their program feared by non-conference and conference opponents, alike. It may not happen this year, but it also might.
Though one thing is for certain: Michigan is going to try its best to take it all. Carpe omnia.
Whipple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @brad_whipple.