Hunter Sharf: Kim Barnes Arico’s Achilles heel?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - 9:46pm

Kim Barnes Arico has now beaten both her team's primary rivals this season.

Kim Barnes Arico has now beaten both her team's primary rivals this season. Buy this photo
Claire Meingast/Daily

 

February 5, 2015.

That was the last time the Michigan women’s basketball team defeated Michigan State. In four straight matchups, Kim Barnes Arico came up empty-handed against the Spartans.

That was the case until Tuesday, when the Wolverines routed Michigan State, 74 to 48.

“This win is important to our university,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s important to our players in our program. It’s important to our state. I mean, it’s just important.”

Part of the job description when coaching at Michigan is how you fair against Michigan State and Ohio State. Up until this season, those matchups were an Achilles heel for Barnes Arico.

And for the first time in her career, these rivalry matchups are going the right way for Barnes Arico. At least they appear to be, as the Wolverines have now won their last two matchups against the two schools.

Prior to Tuesday, the sixth year coach posted a 3-8 record against her rivals from East Lansing. And her record against the Buckeyes is only slightly better at 3-6, boasting a combined .300 winning percentage. Despite being the program’s all-time winningest coach, rivalry matchups are a glaring weakness for Barnes Arico, as 21 percent of her total career losses have come at the hands of the Spartans and Ohio State. Given the magnitude of these matchups, these loses must sting particularly bad.

“This is a game that is circled on the schedule. Every year,” Barnes Arico said. “My first year here, we had five seniors on that team. They taught me what it meant, what this rivalry truly meant. And how important it was to beat State. (The seniors) have been incredible continuing to teach our program what that really means.”

But when considering all factors, Barnes Arico’s previous lack of success against rival schools should only be taken into consideration in part.

Unfortunately for her, Michigan’s two biggest rivals have consistently been among the best teams in the country, notching seven combined NCAA Tournament appearances in the five seasons of Barnes Arico tenure. The two teams have also each been Big Ten champions in that timespan.

And while Barnes Arico’s numbers aren’t by any means good, compared to her predecessors, they aren’t bad. She has three of the Wolverines 12 all-time wins against the Buckeyes. She also now possesses four of Michigan’s five wins over the Spartans since the 2003-04 season.

While the past six seasons shouldn’t be forgotten, this is the year to start judging Barnes Arico against her rivals. Her team is currently ranked 16th in the country and has appeared in the rankings every week this season. This is the year Barnes Arico should challenge her rivals.

And she has.

This year, the Wolverines are 2-1 against the two schools, with their lone loss coming in overtime to then-No. 8 Ohio State on January 7th.

Some may say it’s a fluke and point to the 2014-15 season, where Michigan went 2-0 against the Spartans and 1-1 against the Buckeyes. They may then note that the Wolverines proceeded to go 1-4 against Michigan State in the following years. And they might also say that this is the worst Spartan team in years and had multiple injured players on Tuesday.

And they’re right — somewhat.

Yes, for Michigan to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and become a staple in the national rankings, it has to continue to beat quality teams like Michigan State and Ohio State. They can’t be satisfied with these victories. It has to perform well at the Big Ten Tournament and make its first NCAA tournament in five years.   

But Thursday showed Barnes Arico and the Wolverines are on the trajectory of figuring out their Achilles heel.