Down but not out, the Wolverines still have hope

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 8:30pm

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico will need her team to win most of its remaining games to make the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico will need her team to win most of its remaining games to make the NCAA Tournament. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

When the Michigan women’s basketball team lost at home to No. 23 Michigan State on Jan. 27 — and fell to 3-6 in the Big Ten — it seemed like it was time to look toward next season.

With a home matchup against No. 13 Iowa — which throttled the Wolverines, 75-61, just two weeks earlier — looming next on its schedule, things were not looking good for Michigan. The Wolverines could not afford to concede a second straight home loss and miss another opportunity to beat a ranked team if they were to maintain any sliver of hope at making the NCAA Tournament. 

Considering that Michigan was winless on the road in the Big Ten and was headed to Madison to take on Wisconsin following Friday’s game against the Hawkeyes, the odds of winning one game, let alone both, were slim. 

But what followed was a high scoring, hard fought 90-81 victory over Iowa and a 76-70 win over the Badgers in what was far more lopsided than the final score shows.

“I think it’s important for us not to lose our confidence,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said following the victory against Iowa. “We’ve been in every single game, we’ve lost some incredibly difficult games. For the most part, they’ve all been on the road. So we know we’ve had a tough start to our Big Ten schedule. We really believe in our team. Our losses are to some of the top teams in the country. We don’t really have a bad loss on our schedule, so it’s really important to keep our confidence.”

And Barnes Arico is right: Six of Michigan’s nine losses have come against teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25. The other three losses? All on the road. 

“I think the next step in our growth of this team is getting wins on the road,” said senior guard Nicole Munger. “So that’s what we’re focused on moving forward.”

Currently sitting at 57 in the latest Ratings Percentage Index, and as just the fourth team out in ESPN.com’s Charlie Creme’s latest bracket projection, the Wolverines finds themselves in a position that just 10 days ago was inconceivable.

Even though things are trending upwards for Michigan, it does not mean in the slightest that the Wolverines are a shoo-in to make the Tournament.

With seven games remaining — including home matchups against Indiana and No. 20 Rutgers as well as a road contest against the Spartans — Michigan will face steep competition in this final stretch of the season. 

But with the challenging matchups comes the opportunity for the Wolverines to leave their final mark on the selection committee. 

Luckily for Michigan, four of its remaining games will take place at the Crisler Center and the other two road games are against two of the Big Ten’s bottom feeders: Penn State and Illinois.

“I think it’s our fans,” said junior guard Akienreh Johnson when asked why she thought Michigan played better at home than on the road. “Just knowing that when we’re away and we have a bad loss or a bad game and knowing we can come home (to them), it just makes us happy.” 

For the Wolverines to feel comfortable with their tournament chances, they will have to come out of this stretch with, at most, one loss. If it loses two games, Michigan will be on the bubble sweating it out come selection time. 

Anything more than two losses and the Wolverines’ only hope at making the NCAA Tournament will likely be by accomplishing the daunting challenge of winning the Big Ten Tournament — something they have never done in program history.

So while Michigan still has its work cut out, it’s not yet time to count the Wolverines out.