Ethan Sears: Michigan deserves to make the Tournament

Monday, March 5, 2018 - 8:00pm

The Michigan women's basketball team will receive its fate on Selection Monday.

The Michigan women's basketball team will receive its fate on Selection Monday. Buy this photo
Zoey Holmstrom/Daily

Ambiguity isn’t fun. Let’s get rid of it right away. The Michigan women’s basketball team deserves to be in.

The Wolverines (10-6 Big Ten, 22-9 overall) should hear their name called by the selection committee next Monday. They should — for the first time in five years — play an NCAA Tournament game.

Michigan’s February was one to forget. The Wolverines blew a 16-point lead in the last seven minutes of their game against Purdue on the first day of the month, then proceeded to drop three of the next four, falling to sixth in the Big Ten.

On top of everything, freshman forward Hailey Brown suffered a leg injury — Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico estimated she’ll be out for the season. What had been a team likely to host early-round games became one that needed another couple wins to avoid disaster.

And that’s exactly what it got.

Facing a must-win scenario on Senior Night, the Wolverines knocked off then-No. 13 Maryland on the back of 17 points from sophomore forward Akienreh Johnson. Barnes Arico exercised caution postgame, but it was clear the mood had shifted — and with good reason.

Michigan’s resume over the season’s first three months is unimpeachable. The Wolverines didn’t lose to a team outside the top 25 and beat Ohio State — now sixth in RPI — in Columbus. Their losses being condensed into four weeks instead of spread out over four months shouldn’t matter for anything but seeding.

At the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan did what it had to do, beating Penn State to a pulp in Thursday’s first round before falling to Nebraska in the second. It was all the Wolverines needed.

“We had finished third in the league (last year) and had a decent RPI, a top-50 RPI, but (the selection committee) said we didn’t have enough top-50 wins,” Barnes Arico said Friday. “This year, we have a bunch of top-25 wins. We have three top 25 wins and we have a 38 RPI (ranking). Our conference is significantly better. Our double opponents were pretty good.

“So we think we’ve done what we needed to do.

It’s around this point in the calendar that every coach becomes a salesperson, but Barnes Arico’s pitch is worth buying.

If it can replicate its peak, Michigan is capable of stringing a run. Senior point guard Katelynn Flaherty can light up anybody from outside and junior Nicole Munger is shooting 42 percent on 3-pointers as the starting ‘2. Johnson has taken Brown’s spot in the rotation and filled it in full, knocking down 60 percent from the field in the four games since Brown’s injury. Junior center Hallie Thome is as much a low-post threat as any other center in the conference.

Even so, making it past the first weekend is far from a guarantee. If anything, it’s unlikely. The Cornhuskers shut down the Wolverines’ offense on Friday and, though Flaherty has gotten better against constant face-guarding, turnovers are still an issue. Going 2-4 in February also opened the door to a matchup with No. 1 Connecticut as soon as the second round of the Tournament — a scenario currently projected in ESPN’s Bracketology.

If Michigan gets in, it will have crawled in. The Wolverines were capable of doing more than finishing sixth in the Big Ten and that’s worth noting. Their resume isn’t perfect. It may not be deserving of anything more than a No. 8 seed and a second round date with the Huskies.

But they’ve done enough to get in.