The Michigan women’s basketball team has successfully completed the first half of its grueling Big Ten schedule. After posting one of the program’s best records in history, the Wolverines (5-3 Big Ten, 16-5 overall) are looking to secure their first NCAA tournament bid since 2001.

Michigan picked up wins against Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State — the Buckeyes were the Wolverines’ first and only win against a ranked team this season — and dropped one game to in-state rival Michigan State and two to Penn State, who was ranked in both contests.

There have been a few important factors in Michigan’s first-half success:

Offensive MVP: Junior forward Rachel Sheffer has stepped up in conference play, scoring double digits in six of the team’s eight conference games. She’s also established a post presence that Michigan had been searching for all season. Sheffer has gone up against some of the toughest, most physical forwards in the nation and has mostly come out with success. She can also shoot the 3-pointer respectably — she’s 33 percent on the season — making her a dual threat.

Defensive MVP: Junior guard Jenny Ryan has been the bread and butter of the Wolverines’ stellar defense this season, leading the team in rebounding and steals. Standing at 5-foot-9, she may not be the most intimidating player on the court, but the intensity she brings on defense is her best quality. She’s always sprinting up and down the court and vocally directing the defense. All of her teammates agree that she is the spark of the Michigan defense — Sheffer said Ryan is the leader on defense and someone who provides energy for the team.

Biggest win: The game against Ohio State was by far Michigan’s biggest win, as it came against the only ranked team the Wolverines have beaten all season. Though the Buckeyes have been a perennial leader in the Big Ten, they’ve dropped the last three matchups against the Wolverines. This year, Michigan won in convincing fashion, upsetting their then-undefeated rival, 73-62. All the pieces seemed to fit together on offense, and the Wolverines played one of their best games defensively. Michigan held the Buckeyes’ top two scorers to 10-of-34 shooting, and three Wolverines broke into double figures.

But despite one of the best starts in program history, the Wolverines can’t seem to break into the top-25. To add to that, each of the three times the team garnered votes in the polls, it proceeded to lose the following week.

It may be bad luck, but if Michigan wants national notoriety, it has to prove it deserves of inclusion in the top-25. Inclusion could come with wins against the top teams in the Big Ten, and the Wolverines still have a chance to crack the top-25 if they can win a few more key games.

Michigan State: This time, Michigan will have home-court advantage, but that still may not be enough. The Wolverines will have to put up a fight in the paint — Michigan State has a physical forward in Lykendra Johnson, who dominated the paint against the Wolverines, and a couple other forwards who helped the Spartans outrebound the Wolverines, 44-29, in their previous game. Michigan coach Kevin Borseth has been emphasizing the importance of rebounding all season, and this is a game in which the Wolverines have to win the battle on the boards.

At Nebraska: No matter who you are, it’s tough to win on the road. And it’s even tougher to win on the road against a top-25 team. If the Wolverines want to pick up another marquee victory, they have a chance to do it in Lincoln. The 19th-ranked Cornhuskers has had an up-and-down season, barely pulling out a double-overtime win against Northern Arizona, and losing to Penn State at home after beating them on the road. But the Wolverines will first have to shut down Nebraska’s three potent scorers who contribute to one of the highest-scoring offenses in the conference. The entire Michigan squad will have to channel its performance against Ohio State in order to take down Nebraska on the road.

Purdue: This is another game that Michigan has the potential to win. This is the only time the Wolverines will face the Boilermakers in the regular season, and it happens to be their second-to-last game. It could decide Michigan’s seed in the Big Ten Tournament and possibly its seed in the NCAA Tournament. Purdue is on top of the Big Ten right now, and if the Wolverines win, this game could match the significance of the victory over Ohio State. Michigan will have to contain senior Brittany Rayburn and sophomore Courtney Moses — something not many teams have been able to do.

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