Michigan earns NCAA Tournament bid and with it, vindication
It’s the Friday before the Michigan women’s basketball team will learn its fate, and Kim Barnes Arico is playing the waiting game. The coach knows her team will make the NCAA Tournament on the coming Monday, but she doesn’t know. She’ll never feel comfortable knowing again, because she knew last year and was wrong.
The Wolverines were left out of the NCAA Tournament then, and nothing else matters. They made the most of their situation, winning the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. It didn’t heal the wound.
“Especially now with waiting for Monday, I think it’s at the top of my mind,” Barnes Arico says, a conversational tone suddenly turning serious. “I think I will forever be scarred because of that.”
When you spend time around this team, you see those scars. The goal has been stated time and time again, sometimes with a measure of defiance. Barnes Arico declared Michigan was robbed last season during a postgame press conference in late January. Others take a more diplomatic tact — We felt we did enough — but the sentiment is still the same.
The Wolverines were told after last season they were left out of the Tournament due to a lack of quality wins, something they took measures to correct. Between home wins over Marquette and Maryland and a victory over Ohio State on the road, Michigan has three top-25 wins by RPI, where last season it had none.
Despite this, Barnes Arico refuses to let herself express certainty.
“For us it will always be a reality of, ‘Okay, you’re never guaranteed,’ ” she says. “You always gotta continue to work and continue to improve and continue to get better. Because you never know what the committee is gonna be looking for at any given time.”
With its season on the line, Michigan pulled an upset victory out of its hat against then-No. 13 Maryland in the final game of the regular season. At the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines added the cherry on top with a win over Penn State. That adds a measure of confidence to the wait, but a degree of worry is still there.
After all, Michigan spent most of February losing. Beating the Terrapins was as close to an all-or-nothing proposition the Wolverines have had all year for just that reason.
Barnes Arico didn’t stress the must-win nature of that game before it happened because she feels Michigan plays worse under that kind of pressure. But she knew it, and so did everyone else.
After that win, there was a palpable relief in the air. It has carried over into this conversation, where Barnes Arico jokes about potential locations for the first two rounds. But relief isn’t certainty, and Barnes Arico won’t be caught mistaking one for the other.
Michigan has read the same book for two years in a row as a team, Joshua Medcalf’s Chop Wood Carry Water. It’s a motivational book, the type of thing you read as a team, and one part of the story sticks out.
The main character is an architect, and a good one at that. He’s getting old and is asked to build one last house, a task he finishes halfheartedly. When the job is done, his client gives him the key as a gift. The house, one of the architect’s worst-ever jobs, belongs to him.
“It kind of goes with basketball,” said junior center Hallie Thome at the beginning of the season. “You know, like building your own house. Each and every day you’re building your own player on the court, you’re building your own confidence, and we’re building a team each and every practice.”
The book was then-senior, now-graduate assistant Danielle Williams’ suggestion last year, and the Wolverines learned the lesson firsthand. They built their house, the Selection Show came, and then there was no choice but to live there.
When Michigan started to look lost this year, struggling under the weight of expectation that came with being ranked as highly as 13th in the country, Barnes Arico turned to the same message.
“When we started to get tight and we stopped thinking — we started to worry about the outcome and not the process — I thought that (the book) would be a reminder to us, as to why we’re doing this and what’s important,” Barnes Arico said. “And to bring us back to who we are and our core values and what our program stands for. And it’s just a constant reminder of that and just another way and another voice other than my voice or my assistant coaches’ voices — or Jillian (Dunston’s) voice.”
Last year, it was Dunston who rallied the Wolverines at practice the morning after the Selection Show, telling them in no uncertain terms they would win the WNIT and hang a banner.
On Tuesday, that won’t be necessary.
The Wolverines watched the Selection Show at Revel and Roll bowling alley last season, renting out a suite and inviting media to witness an impending celebration that never was. This year, they took a quieter tack, watching the show at Barnes Arico’s house, a more open space for catharsis.
The first region came and went without Michigan’s name being called. When the second did as well, the nerves started creeping in. Barnes Arico had felt confident coming in — there was no reason not to — but the tone in the room was changing from lighthearted to stoic.
“I could see Jilly starting to put her hand over her face,” Barnes Arico said. “My own children were like, ‘We can’t watch anymore,’ so I think everyone was getting a little stressed.
“... My little one came and sat on on my lap and said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like this,’ and then my son is like, ‘Ah, I don’t feel so good.’ … The longer it went, the tighter we became.”
Finally, their name was called and a year’s worth of emotions spilled out of the Wolverines. Dunston jumped out of her chair, then leapt up and down a few more times, turning to Katelynn Flaherty, a fellow senior, who bounced into her arms to share the moment.
“The most devastating part for me as a coach last year was (seniors) Danielle Williams and Siera Thompson didn’t get to experience it and what they had given to our program through the years,” Barnes Arico said. “... I didn’t want to leave that hole and that emptiness there again with Jillian and Katelynn.”
Assistant coach Wesley Brooks jumped into the middle of the room and let out a roar, turning to the ceiling to punctuate his exuberance. The entire room flew upwards at the same time, because what else is there to do when you’ve just accomplished your goal?
“We didn’t really hear much after that,” Barnes Arico said. “Thank goodness we recorded the show.”
The Wolverines, the seventh seed in the Lexington, Ky. regional, will play No. 10 Northern Colorado in Waco, TX. on Friday (5 pm, ESPN2). If they get by the Bears, No. 2 Baylor will likely await, and with it, the almost-certain end of Michigan’s season.
But that doesn’t matter.
The Wolverines wanted one thing from this season: an NCAA Tournament bid. They built a house big enough to earn it. Everything else is just window dressing.