SportsMonday Column: A Sunday at a crossroads
It’s impossible to encapsulate a season in one game, and there’s been plenty of good news for the Michigan women’s basketball team this year. The 20th-ranked Wolverines are 21-7, one win shy of tying their all-time best mark. They’re a near-lock to secure their seventh NCAA Tournament bid. And on Sunday, against Michigan State at Crisler Center, they shattered their previous attendance record of 5,991 with an announced crowd of 12,707 (though that figure measures tickets sold).
Then came an image that might linger for a while: By the end of the afternoon, three sections of Michigan State fans were the only ones cheering in the Spartans’ 86-68 win.
In front of those fans, the Wolverines reached a crossroads: They saw how far they have come, and also how far they have to go. They played in front of a record-breaking crowd, yet they failed to match it with a result. They were undefeated both at home and when playing after a loss this season, yet they tarnished both of those marks. They played while ranked against an unranked Michigan State team for the first time this century, yet they couldn’t take advantage.
The crowd factor has always been a focal point for the Wolverines. The problem has been establishing that fan base. When she was hired in 2003, former coach Cheryl Burnett made the atmosphere at Crisler an immediate priority. Early in her first season, she told the Daily, “I believe that our support system — which is the crowd, the fans — can help us win games. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it and I believe it.” But the Wolverines couldn’t establish momentum, finishing 35-83 in Burnett’s four years.
Then, in 2010, after Kevin Borseth’s Michigan team routed Syracuse to win its 21st game and advance to the WNIT semifinals, Borseth said: “I’m hoping Wednesday we can really lure a lot people out here. It’s going to be a great night obviously, because there’ll be not a lot on TV, not a lot going on. It’s a Wednesday, should be a great day for basketball to fill Crisler. I think our record is 5,500, I think we can get 13 grand. I would love to see that.” Michigan drew 2,456 and lost by 17.
Kim Barnes Arico was next at the helm, and she arguably has the program in better shape than it has ever been. Two years ago, after the Wolverines’ season ended in the WNIT semifinals before an announced crowd of 2,209, Barnes Arico thanked the fans for what she called the “best atmosphere I’ve been a part of since I came here.”
She said that again Sunday — calling it the best atmosphere of her career except for her trips to powerhouse Connecticut while at St. John’s — and it was legitimate. The best team in program history drew the best crowd in program history.
Everything after that went south.
For a day, Michigan eased its problem of low attendance. But there was another hex the Wolverines couldn’t break — their struggles against Michigan State.
They are now 18-66 against their rivals from East Lansing, 4-27 in the last 31 meetings and 4-18 against Spartans coach Suzy Merchant.
“I always talk about, from the first time we played them, they’ve been the team in the state,” Barnes Arico said. “They’ve been the benchmark. They’ve been the program. They have had tradition. We’ve tried to learn from them, and we’ve tried to grow from where our program was.”
The Wolverines have always struggled to match their rivals in building a program. Michigan State boasts 13 NCAA Tournament berths to Michigan’s six and three Sweet Sixteens to Michigan’s zero.
Over the past eight years entering this season, Michigan’s highest attendance average was 2,593. Michigan State’s lowest was 5,844, and the Spartans ranked in the top 10 in the country in six of those years.
It’s a difficult gap to bridge, and it’s hard to build a program in women’s basketball because of the margin between the top tier and everyone else. No. 1 Connecticut has both of the two longest winning streaks in college sports history.
But the Wolverines have made progress. Their record this season speaks for itself, they are generating more buzz and Barnes Arico pointed out that Michigan beat out Michigan State for top recruit Kysre Gondrezick out of Benton Harbor, Mich.
Sunday was a reminder that these transformations don’t happen overnight.
“What happens is, once you start winning a little bit, everybody expects you to win every one,” Barnes Arico said. “It was funny, we lost at Indiana (on Thursday) and we came home and it was like the world had come to an end, around Ann Arbor, around the office. It was like, ‘What happened? What happened?’
“I was like, ‘Golly, we’re not Connecticut. We’re probably not going to win every one, and coming into the year, those weren’t the expectations. But once you start winning, those expectations significantly change.”
Sunday’s loss may sting for a while, in part because of those new expectations. It was Michigan’s second-most lopsided loss of the year, its first in 14 games at home and its first back-to-back defeat as well.
Now Barnes Arico must manage those expectations. She said after the game it’s important for her team to stay confident. She told star guard Katelynn Flaherty — who shot 2-for-12 and scored four points, her lowest total since Feb. 28, 2015 — to keep her head up. Barnes Arico knows that, at third place in the Big Ten, her team is still in a good position, if a new one as well.
“Uncharted territory,” she said, “for sure.”
Lourim can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jakelourim.