The Michigan women’s basketball team won’t admit it’s looking ahead in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s hard to resist taking a peek at the bracket’s possibilities.
The Wolverines received an eight seed in this year’s tournament in their first back-to-back appearances in the postseason since the 2000-01 seasons. The historical 2000-01 seasons also marked the last time Michigan garnered an eight seed, which is the program’s best-ever seed.
Michigan faces the nine seed in the Spokane Region, Villanova, in the first round of the tournament. The Wolverines, who have been hardened by a competitive Big Ten season, are looking to advance past the first round, where they were bounced last year by Oklahoma.
“We have more experience, we’ve been to the NCAA Tournament, we’ve been dancing and I think this year we will be more prepared and hopefully get a win,” said senior guard Kate Thompson.
The Wolverines will have two more days to prepare for the Wildcats before their matchup Saturday evening in Palo Alto, Calif. There isn’t a doubt that first-year Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has been installing a game plan to outwit Villanova, a team she faced numerous times during her tenure at St. John’s.
If Michigan avoids a first-round loss, it will likely face one of the premier teams in the country in Stanford. The Cardinal is the top seed in the region, and, barring a loss to Tulsa, will face Michigan in the second round on its home court.
“I think the next couple days is going to be all Villanova,” said senior forward Rachel Sheffer. “Just like the Big Ten Tournament, you play back to back so all that really matters is the next game, and that’s Villanova. I don’t think that Stanford is on anybody’s mind.”
Of course, when playing in a win-or-go-home situation, the impending matchup is obviously the most important. But it’s no secret that the Wolverines are somewhat concerned by the imposing test that lies ahead.
“Anything can happen,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s one game. (For) an eight (or) nine seed in women’s basketball, it’s been a long, long time since someone’s upset a one. The one (seeds) in the women’s games have really separated themselves from everyone else in the field and not only is it a separation, but you also have to go and play on their home court.”
For Barnes Arico, playing a top-ranked team is nothing new. In 2011, Barnes Arico faced an identical situation at the helm of the ninth-ranked Red Storm. After defeating Texas Tech in the first round, St. John’s fell to top-seeded Stanford in the second round.
That loss notwithstanding, Barnes Arico has proven her ability to beat the best. Last season, the Red Storm gained national attention by snapping then-No. 2 Connecticut’s 99-game home winning streak as an unranked team. Even Barnes Arico admitted Monday she had received several phone calls over the weekend reminding her of the upset, likely in anticipation of the battle with Stanford.
“I always think (the Connecticut upset) is something you can go back to,” Barnes Arico said. “Anything is possible if you get things to go your way and if you hang around for long enough. You never know what can happen.”
But first, Michigan must take care of business against Villanova before it can even start to dream about becoming a bracket buster.
“I just think (the) eight-nine is an incredibly tough seed in the women’s game, (and) we have to focus on Villanova first,” Barnes Arico said.