When the eighth-seeded Michigan women’s basketball team plays ninth-seeded Villanova Sunday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it will face a team that has suffered similar consequences and results this season.
Both teams finished with the same overall and conference record this season – Michigan (9-7 Big Ten, 21-10 overall) and Villanova (9-7 Big East, 21-10). In addition, both teams started 4-0 in conference play and suffered losses in the quarterfinals of their respective conference tournaments.
Coming from the Big East, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has experience coaching against the Wildcats. At St. John’s, she won three straight games against Villanova, including a 69-49 victory in her last contest.
Given her win streak and familiarity with longtime Villanova coach Harry Perretta, Barnes Arico feels confident she will be able to prepare her team adequately before Sunday’s game.
“I was in (that) league for 10 years, and he was always someone that was a tremendous coach, but an even better person and someone you could always turn to in our league,” Barnes Arico said. “I’ve gone and sat down with him to talk basketball. I’ve gone and talked to him about his offense. So yeah, I know Villanova really well, coach Perretta really well. It should be interesting.”
Michigan will have to get used to contesting the 3-point shot more than it has all year. Villanova ranks seventh in the country in 3-pointers made per game, averaging 8.3. The Wildcats attempted 256 shots in the season – also enough for seventh in the country.
“They play a unique style, kind of like Princeton men of old, they play five out,” Barnes Arico said. “They play five out, they shoot threes like crazy, they probably take 20 to 30 more threes than anybody else per game,” Barnes Arico said.
It’s no surprise, then, as to what Michigan has devoted its time practicing this week in preparation.
“We’re OK at defending the three, and we’ll work on it this week and be ready,” senior guard Jenny Ryan said.
Added senior forward Rachel Sheffer: “I feel like we’ve faced Maggie Lucas, one of the best 3-point shooters in the game right now. We defend (senior forward Kate Thompson) in practice every day, and I’m sure she’ll be shooting up a storm in the next couple days. Knowing that they are a 3-point shooting team, that’s going to be one of our main focuses in the next few days in practice.”
Though they’re making their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wolverines haven’t advanced beyond the first round since 2001 – their last NCAA berth before 2012.
After falling to Oklahoma in the first round last season, Michigan returned five seniors who have carried the team with their experience and scoring. The seniors led the team to its second straight 20-plus win campaign.
With such experience in hand, it’s no surprise that Barnes Arico and company envision bigger things this post season compared to last.
“You’re not just happy to be there anymore, you want to be successful once you get there,” Barnes Arico said. “The senior class really wanted to create something special, and they’ve been able to do that. We don’t want to end here, we want to keep going forward.”
To move beyond the first round, though, the Wolverines will have to deal with the senior duo of Laura Sweeney and Rachel Roberts, who are the only two double-digit scorers for the Wildcats, averaging 13.9 and 11.0 points, respectively. Sweeney also leads the team in rebounding, averaging 6.9 per game. No other player averages more than 3.8 per game.
Meanwhile, Michigan boasts three double-digit scorers in Ryan, Sheffer and Thompson. The latter leads the Wolverines with 14.5 points per game and is second in the country with 107 made 3-pointers.
On the defensive side of things, Villanova ranks 18th in the nation in points allowed per game, at 52.3. Michigan stands at 42nd, allowing 55 points per game.
While a date with top-seeded Stanford more than likely looms for the winner, the Wolverines are still just focused on the game at hand and not looking ahead.