Even though it’s early in the Big Ten season, the first couple of in-conference games can go a long way towards earning a postseason bid — especially when it comes down to who gets to play in that popular tournament in March.
After winning its first two Big Ten games against then-No.12 Ohio State and then-No. 13 Iowa, the Michigan women’s basketball team was sitting atop the Big Ten standings and even received some votes in both the AP Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll. But after their fantastic start, the Wolverines have stumbled a bit — losing to Purdue and then No. 11 Michigan State.
Michigan (2-2 Big Ten, 9-7 overall) is currently tied for fourth with No. 16 Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Indiana. No. 24 Ohio State isn’t far behind either. In front of the Buckeyes are Penn State, Wisconsin, and No. 9 Michigan State.
“The conference from top to bottom is better than anybody else in the country,” Michigan coach Kevin Borseth said before the season. “As time goes by, something needs to happen where we move up to the top of the conference, because everybody is a contender in this conference.”
In the Big Ten, a fourth-place tie four games into the season is not where you want to be. Many of the fourth-place teams Michigan is tied with will improve, and the teams at the top will only get better.
Even though it is only January, Sunday’s game against second-place Wisconsin is vital for the Wolverines. Getting behind early in the brutal Big Ten will not be easy to overcome, and winning big games early bodes well for the teams’ chances to play in March.
MISSING NYA JORDAN: Two weeks ago against Ohio State, Nya Jordan went down with a knee injury and has yet to return. Even though the details of her injury are a bit murky, the impact of her absence has been is clear.
Jordan has been seen walking around campus in crutches, although she was off of them by Sunday in the game against Michigan State. The injury was supposedly sustained to her kneecap, though Borseth has not officially said anything. The only thing that has been announced is that Jordan is out “indefinitely,” with no timetable for a return.
In their last two losses, the Wolverines have really missed Jordan’s offensive ability. She averages the fewest points per game of any of the Wolverines’ five starters (7.2), but her impact isn’t often on the scoreboard.
Jordan has the ability to drive and set up important outside shooting. Michigan relies heavily on the 3-point shot — with almost a third of its points coming from behind the arc. When Jordan is playing, she forces opposing defenses to collapse on her and open up the perimeter. Not having her penetration means that opposing defenders can cheat more toward outside shooting, making those shots even tougher.
“The ability for us to get to the glass really hurts when Nya isn’t there,” Borseth said after Michigan’s loss to Michigan State. “It’s an athlete that is taken off of our lineup and that really hurts us.”
But junior Courtney Boylan has been filling in nicely for Jordan — though she is more of a point guard than a slasher. If Jordan returns for Sunday’s game, it will be a big boost to the struggling Wolverine offense — especially their outside shooting.
“You can’t really replace a Nya,” senior guard Veronica Hicks said on Tuesday. “All you can do is fill in and go with a different type of team chemistry.”
WHERE IS SAM ARNOLD?: The sophomore forward has been a key player off the bench for Michigan, and at times has been able to provide a scoring spark for the Wolverines. But in Michigan’s last two losses, she has been nowhere to be found.
Against Purdue, she played only 10 minutes — scoring five points and grabbing one rebound. Against Michigan State, she was in for less than a minute, which was puzzling because of the Spartans’ dominance inside the paint and on the boards. Six-foot-four Arnold is the team’s tallest player, so it would seem that she could have helped Michigan inside.
“Rebounding is key for us, and that’s what we’ve talked about with Sam,” Borseth said after practice Tuesday. “Sam is great offensively, and on the defensive end, we need to make sure she is in tune as well. She wants to be, and she is doing everything she can to make sure she can, but she’ll be back in there.”
Borseth repeated several times that Arnold needs to improve on her rebounding and defense, though her offense is where it should be. Michigan will have had a full week of practice before its game on Sunday, so if Arnold improves in those areas, she should be ready to contribute again.