Michigan's postseason relies on senior leadership
Two regular season games remain for the Michigan women’s basketball team. Winning only one would lock the Wolverines (10-4 Big Ten, 21-7 overall) into a top-four seed for the Big Ten Tournament.
If it can manage that, it will be No. 25 Michigan’s highest finish under fifth-year coach Kim Barnes Arico. This Monday marks the team’s third week spent in the top 25 — already the longest stretch in which the Wolverines have been ranked in Barnes Arico’s tenure.
“This is a spot we’ve never been in,” Barnes Arico said. “I think our kids are getting incredibly tight, and I think the teams that are playing against us are coming out like, ‘Hey, we’re beating a ranked opponent, now that’s on our resume in the NCAA Tournament.’ That’s something our team has never faced before.”
In the past few seasons, the Wolverines have consistently been the underdogs. They have never won more than 22 games in a season, and have never made it past the semifinal round of a Big Ten Tournament — ever.
With two regular season games left against unranked opponents Nebraska and Penn State, Michigan has an opportunity to make history by reaching the 23-win mark. And it has prepared for this moment all year.
“I think we have the ability to come out and play against top teams,” said sophomore center Hallie Thome on Inside Michigan Basketball on Monday night. “In the beginning of the season we were in the Virgin Islands playing against all the top teams, and we were able to hold our own. I think having that confidence under our belt really helped us coming into the Big Ten season.”
Yet, Michigan has lost its last two matchups, including its first home loss of the season against Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. A record-breaking season is far from guaranteed, but the Wolverines have access to an unprecedented opportunity.
Michigan’s ranking, along with a streak of three 100-point games earlier this season, has already solidified the 2016-17 season as one of firsts for the program. But while the younger Wolverines relish this run, for the two co-captains, it is a bit bittersweet. Thursday night, senior guards Danielle Williams and Siera Thompson will play their final regular season home game at Crisler Center.
Thompson has started in every game this season and leads the team in assists with 140 — the only current Michigan player to break into triple digits in that category. Thompson also ranks fourth in points and third in rebounding.
Williams has started 15 of 28 games, and while she has just 53 points, she is an effective defensive presence every time she steps on the court.
Both seniors are known as stable presences for the Wolverines, which will be an important factor in postseason play. With two of their top three leading scorers— junior guard Katelynn Flaherty and freshman guard Kysre Gondrezick — having shooting troubles recently, the seniors’ steadying focus will be necessary to get the team back on track.
Michigan’s postseason might even hinge on Williams and Thompson’s ability to lead the team during the next two games because winning will give the Wolverines a bye for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
“We are at our best when we have that time to prepare for our opponent,” Barnes Arico said on WTKA Radio. “So that would be a position we would be really excited about and I think it could definitely be a difference maker moving into the Big Ten Tournament.”
With a core group of five starters that average over 25 minutes a game, the rest afforded from a bye could be crucial.