Ethan Sears: Michigan has to extend its rotation or risk running out of gas
Among the problems exposed in the Michigan women‘s basketball team‘s loss to No. 3 Notre Dame on Wednesday: depth, or lack thereof.
The Wolverines scored all of six bench points, four of them coming after coach Kim Barnes Arico emptied the bench once the Fighting Irish stretched their lead to 20.
When the game was still within reach, Michigan was locked into a seven-woman rotation. Freshman guard Deja Church and sophomore forward Kayla Robbins were the only players coming off the bench for any sustained time.
All five Wolverine starters played at least 30 minutes. Senior guard Katelynn Flaherty played 39, senior forward Jillian Dunston totaled 38, and junior center Hallie Thome notched 34. Church was the only bench player with over five minutes.
Given that no Notre Dame player went over 35 minutes, it may not be a coincidence that Michigan expired at the start of the fourth quarter.
“I think that (our strength coach) Jamie (Preiss) has conditioned us very well so I think that we’re prepared for anything,” Thome said after the game. “It wasn’t like fatigue physically, I think it was mentally just always having to locate Arike (Ogunbowale) and just be aware of where everyone is.”
There’s no doubt that trying to stop Ogunbowale — who finished with 32 points for the Fighting Irish — took a mental toll on Michigan. But the notion that there was no physical fatigue at all, well, that’s a tough sell.
The Wolverines were scrambling on defense all night, not just to keep up with Ogunbowale, but to stay competitive on the boards. They were outrebounded by a 42-28 margin, but given that Notre Dame had a clear size advantage, it could have been worse. To stay that close, Michigan bracketed the 6-foot-4 Jessica Shepard off the ball for the early part of the game. That left the Wolverines scrambling for rotations on nearly every defensive possession.
They scrapped that strategy before the first half was over, but sprinting around the floor like their lives depended on it had to have some effect — especially when nobody had a chance to catch their breath.
Right now, Michigan doesn’t seem to have the depth to compete with the nation’s best. Even Robbins, who has flashed the ability to play Dunston’s role as a defensive grinder and off-ball catalyst, was trusted with all of five minutes on Wednesday.
As for the rest of the bench, the Wolverines are still waiting for someone to emerge.
Freshman point guard Priscilla Smeenge got two minutes of playing time on Wednesday when the game was still attainable, but that was a flash in the pan. She’s had just five minutes of playing time this season.
As for sophomore guard Akienreh Johnson, Barnes Arico has yet to trust her for more than a few minutes each game and didn’t play her against the Fighting Irish until garbage time. Ditto for sophomore forward KeAsja Peace. Junior forward Samantha Trammel has gotten on the floor for only three minutes all year. One of these players has to emerge as a reliable rotation option for the team to compete against tougher competition.
They can’t depend on Flaherty to play 39 minutes a night — that’s an unreasonable ask for anyone, even the team‘s cornerstone. She‘s averaging 37.3 minutes per game right now and four of Michigan's games have been against pushovers. What‘s that number going to look like once conference play picks up?
This can’t continue, or the Wolverines will be out of gas by Christmas. Lucky for them, there’s still nearly a month left before Big Ten play starts and Michigan should breeze through teams like North Florida, Fort Wayne and Delaware State.
Barnes Arico has to use that time to figure out an eighth spot in the rotation and balance out the minutes distribution a little more. If she doesn’t, it will come back to bite the Wolverines.