Jacob Gase: The search for the perfect lineup

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By Jacob Gase, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 2, 2015

When Danielle Williams was announced in the starting lineup for the Michigan women’s basketball team back on Dec. 19 at Crisler Center, more than a few fans scratched their heads.

The sophomore guard had played just 81 minutes her freshman season, with only one start under her belt. Days earlier, Williams wasn’t even practicing alongside the starters — she was on the scout team, trying to simulate Canisius players. Williams herself was surprised when Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico gave her the starting nod.

“I think I surprised everyone,” Barnes Arico said then. “I told (assistant coach) Joy (McCorvey) and (assistant coach Megan) Duffy, ‘You guys are going to have to get her off the prep team — she’s going to start today.’ And they both looked at me like, ‘What?’ ”

The surprise move was just the most notable example of something Barnes Arico has shown all season: She’s not afraid to tinker with the starting lineup if she doesn’t like what she sees on the court.

Three seniors — forward Cyesha Goree, forward Nicole Elmblad and guard Shannon Smith — have their places in the lineup secured, and so does sophomore guard Siera Thompson.

But the fifth spot hasn’t been set in stone all season. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a defensive specialist like Williams, a lights-out shooter like freshman guard Katelynn Flaherty or a more experienced long-range threat like junior guard Madison Ristovski. On Barnes Arico’s team, everyone is weighed equally.

For a team that currently sits in the middle of the pack in a talented Big Ten, that constant reevaluation could be the key to staying on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“I think sometimes kids get complacent,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s our job as coaches to continue to challenge them to improve. When we see that other kids are really improving, we want to reward them and give them an opportunity for pushing themselves and doing the things we ask.”

In December, it was defense the Wolverines were lacking. Coming off blowout losses to Princeton and Notre Dame with the Big Ten season on the horizon, Michigan desperately needed a spark to stop falling into early deficits.

Enter Williams. Despite averaging just 11.3 minutes while making 11 straight starts, she picked up 19 steals — including six in one game against Eastern Michigan — and 32 rebounds. With her on the floor in the early minutes, the Wolverines’ defense thrived in victories over Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Most Big Ten squads wouldn’t start a player who only plays a quarter of the game, but in Barnes Arico’s system, any hard-working player can step into a starring role, depending on the team’s needs.

Which is why, in Sunday’s tough loss to No. 15 Nebraska, Ristovski found herself back in the starting lineup for the seventh time this season. After first-half offensive droughts plagued Michigan in all six of its previous road games, Barnes Arico decided her team needed a fast start.

The new lineup delivered, jumping out to a 20-9 run on the strength of five points and two assists from Ristovski. The Wolverines went stagnant on both offense and defense in the second half and let the upset slip away, but yet again, the new lineup did what it was supposed to.

Much like Williams’ defensive presence, Ristovski’s experience on offense brought an edge that looked like it might be enough to give Michigan its first road win against a ranked opponent.

That experience is the same reason Barnes Arico is keeping one of her best pure shooters on the bench.

After starting the first three games of the season, Flaherty was relegated to sixth-man duties after showing her inexperience and turning the ball over six times in a loss at Pittsburgh. She hasn’t made a start since, but the freshman has excelled in her new role, scoring 14.5 points per game and shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.

“I fit in well (in that role),” Flaherty said. “I’m just happy that they have confidence in me to do that, and that’s what they want me to be. I think I’ve been successful at that, and I’ve helped the team, which really is the most important thing.”

Flaherty’s prolific scoring ability — with her signature moment being a late game-tying 3-pointer in the Wolverines’ overtime victory over Ohio State — has made her a fixture in Barnes Arico’s late-game lineup, yet another alternative to the offense-first and defense-first squads.

But for Michigan, it’s not about searching for one perfect starting lineup.

Barnes Arico cares more about evaluating things game by game, rewarding players who improve and making changes to the lineup whenever necessary.

The fact that Flaherty is still fifth on the team in minutes without making a start since November shows that Barnes Arico doesn’t use the fifth lineup spot as a permanent solution — she uses it as a tool to address whatever problem Michigan is facing lately.

Future success won’t come from finding one solution — it’ll come from finding the perfect offensive and defensive balance from the Wolverines’ many options.

And if that means throwing a scout-team player with limited minutes into the starting lineup, so be it.

Jacob Gase can be reached by e-mail at jgase@umich.edu and on Twitter @JacobGase.