Michigan's long, wild year and the promise of a next one

Sunday, March 15, 2020 - 7:20pm

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico thought her team would get an NCAA Tournament bid this year.

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico thought her team would get an NCAA Tournament bid this year. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

Adjacent Stadium Boulevard, outside of Crisler Center, there’s a billboard.

During the day it’s merely a roadside distraction. Its rotating images about Michigan are only given attention when drivers sit still, stuck at the red light between Stadium and Main.

At night, its hundreds of LED panels stand alone as a source of light for the meager commuters driving past to look to, one of the only roadside attractions they’ll pass.

Most of the frames it shows are harmless: a plea for a passerby to buy football tickets, a lab photo with a declaration of being the best public school in the nation. There’s nothing someone looking at it would think twice about, until it reaches the photo of Jon Teske and Naz Hillmon framing the words “This week in Michigan basketball.”

This week in Michigan basketball is depressing. COVID-19 has forced the NCAA and Michigan to stop all athletic events for the rest of the year. There’s not much else to it, other than depressing. Seniors won’t see their season off the way they want to. Neither will coaches or fans or other players.

It brings a finality to the season that no one wanted, forcing us to reflect on an almost-done women’s basketball team far before anyone ever wanted.

Who knew that when a reporter asked Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico about reflecting on the season, “Now that it was over,” after its semifinal loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, the season actually was over? And Barnes Arico’s gentle nudge at the end of her answer that the season was not over — there was the NCAA Tournament after all — proved to be wrong.

“This was a special group,” Barnes Arico said last Saturday. “It’s a special year. It’s kind of a bummer to end on a loss, but I think we put ourselves in a position with this tournament and with our schedule all season long to be an NCAA Tournament team.”

This year in Michigan women’s basketball was a rollercoaster, and it’s easy to look at the bad parts. The loss of superfan Chuck Raab on the day of the season opener, a fourth-quarter collapse against a weak Notre Dame team, Kayla Robbins’s ACL tear, blowout losses at home to Maryland and Indiana — a myriad of times to look back on and ponder, “If only.”

This season was long and grueling, with few payoffs for the Wolverines. An overtime victory over a Syracuse team on the program’s first-ever appearance on ESPN, sweeping Michigan State for the first time in years, a 15-point win over then-No. 18 Iowa on Pink Day — yet the biggest payoffs have, perhaps, a lot more to do with the future than with this year.

Freshman guard Maddie Nolan, after riding the bench for the first three months of the season, became a starter due to Danielle Rauch’s injury and literally stole the show in Indianapolis. Freshman center Izabel Varejão developed throughout the season to where, at the end, her potential was obvious: With Naz Hillmon, she will be unstoppable.

And then there are the two that you forget are sophomores, Hillmon and point guard Amy Dilk. Hillmon last week, amid the bombardment of depressing sporting news, was named one of five finalists for the best power forwards in the country. Her dominance became commonplace, to the point where no one blinked when she had a double-double by the third quarter.

Dilk, meanwhile, struggled with turnovers to start the year, but as the season progressed, the ball grew closer and closer to her hip until the pair were inseparable. She also became a scorer and distributor and figured out how to balance those two things.

While those futures are known, senior guard Akienreh Johnson’s is not. The team has applied for her to gain another year of eligibility, retroactively, after her freshman year was cut short with an ACL injury.

And now, with practices cancelled and a dead campus, she has to wait, not knowing if she’ll get that extra year — or when.

She’ll have to wait while that billboard outside Crisler Center will keep changing, rotating through its eight pictures as fewer and fewer people drive past it, blinking along as the country shuts down.

That billboard will be normal, promising normal, promising a next year for Michigan. One that will be more stable, with an ending.