In each of the last three seasons, the Michigan women’s basketball team made the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. All three times, the Wolverines advanced to the semifinals of that tournament. But this year, Michigan’s goal has little to do with the WNIT.
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico and her team both stated throughout the preseason that this season would be a success only if the Wolverines finish in the top four of the Big Ten and qualify for a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
As it was, Michigan came very close to making the NCAA Tournament last year. A 64-63 loss at Eastern Michigan, a 65-63 home defeat against Purdue, an overtime road loss to Indiana and narrow home losses against then-No. 8 Maryland and then-No. 7 Ohio State likely played a significant role in the Wolverines being relegated to the WNIT.
It also didn’t help that Michigan lost to Iowa in the first round of the 2016 Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines also dropped their first conference tournament game in 2015.
But with the amount of offensive talent Michigan returns for 2016-17, something that was not the case in previous years, it’s not unreasonable to think that enough of those close losses from last season will turn into wins to propel the Wolverines to their goals.
“I think last year, we may have stumbled in one or two (games) down the stretch,” Barnes Arico said. “I think that may have come from our inexperience. But this year, I think our experience and our growth in a lot of areas is going to shine through.”
Undoubtedly, Michigan’s biggest returning star is junior guard Katelynn Flaherty. She once again led the Wolverines with 17 points in their 93-41 victory over Wayne State on Thursday night. Her most impressive feat so far this season, though, may have been the fact that she bested Duncan Robinson of the men’s basketball team in a 3-point contest.
Her improved shooting could be the difference in a high-scoring game, which is likely against Ohio State.
“(Flaherty) has worked extremely hard on her game,” Barnes Arico said. “She was a great scorer for us last year, but she really put in a lot of time over the summer and in the offseason to take the steps to become an even better player.”
But two other veterans also stood out Thursday.
Junior forward Jillian Dunston rebounded 12 times against the Warriors — four on offense and eight on defense — while sophomore guard Nicole Munger tallied 11 points and three consecutive 3-pointers despite playing just six minutes during the first half.
“(Dunston and Munger) are both spark plugs for us,” Barnes Arico said. “Their effort is at another level.”
Another key piece returning for the Wolverines is sophomore center Hallie Thome. She averaged 14.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 2015-16, which earned her a place on the Big Ten All-Freshman team. Thome scored 12 points and tallied five rebounds against Wayne State.
Though opposing Big Ten defenses will now have tape to game plan for her, Thome’s experience and increased strength will be valuable for Michigan. Also, the increased depth will help Thome stay out of foul trouble, something that was an issue last year.
“I’ve worked a lot on strength and conditioning,” Thome said. “Being able to combat the strength of the Big Ten and what everyone has, as a freshman I knew that I had to get used to. As a sophomore, being able to come in and surprise the Big Ten, even though it might not look like I gained a lot of muscle, it’s there and able to combat what they’ll throw at me.”
With the high expectations placed on Michigan this year, it is important to keep them in check.
No. 5 Maryland made a strong case that it is the best team in the Big Ten as the Terrapins came up with staggering wins over Bluefield State, 146-17, and Mary Baldwin, 153-27, in exhibition play.
No. 7 Ohio State will also prove to be a major obstacle for the Wolverines as Buckeye guard Kelsey Mitchell was named to the preseason All-American first team. No. 23 Indiana and Michigan State — which narrowly missed inclusion in the AP Top 25 — will be formidable opponents as well. These teams will likely make it very difficult for Michigan to win the Big Ten, whether during the regular season or during the Big Ten Tournament.
But considering the experience the Wolverines have this year, the depth Michigan now has, and its success in the WNIT the last two seasons, the Wolverines have a great opportunity to attain their first NCAA berth since 2012-13, Barnes Arico’s first season.