1. This team isn’t in rebuilding mode.
Someone forgot to tell the women’s basketball team that this was supposed to be a transition year. Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico used the phrase “transition season” all throughout the summer, as lip service to say the team wasn’t expected to be competitive. But after posting a 5-3 record, the Wolverines are more than ready to follow up Barnes Arico’s impressive first year as head coach.
Michigan lost five seniors, including four starters, and more than 80 percent of its offense from last season. But it’s compensating by playing strong team basketball and finding offensive production up and down the roster.
“On game day, we always have a lot of energy, and that’s important,” said freshman guard Siera Thompson. “We practice really hard and are always ready for game day.”
Hard work has been a staple of Barnes Arico’s program since she took over. She often cites her squad as the hardest working team in America. And it’s largely due to work ethic that the Wolverines have been able to make up for their lack of size and inexperience.
2. The Wolverines can run with the big dogs.
Michigan faced its first ranked opponent of the season on Saturday when it lost to No. 15 Louisiana State, 64-62. The Wolverines trailed by seven at halftime, but they fought back. A second-half surge had Michigan tied with LSU (6-1) with 20 seconds left, but a Tiger tip-in broke the stalemate and ended the game.
What made the game even more impressive was the absence of the leading scorer, junior-transfer guard Shannon Smith, who sat out the game after hurting her back in Friday’s win over Texas Tech. Losing Smith’s 17.3 points per game is a lot to overcome, especially against a top-20 team, but four other players scored in double-digits and Michigan’s defense stepped up to contain LSU.
With four Big Ten teams ranked in the Top 25, the Wolverines will face their share of ranked opponents before the season ends. Michigan also has a date with No. 5 Notre Dame on Dec. 14. But after their performance against the Tigers, the Wolverines have given every indication that they can run with ranked opponents.
3. Siera Thompson is no one-hit wonder.
The freshman point guard has started all but one game for Michigan and has been a force in the last three games. Thompson is second on the team in scoring with 14 points per game, while also averaging 4.5 rebounds. But in the last three games, Thompson has averaged 19.7 points per game and set her career high twice in that span.
“In the beginning of the year, she (was) struggling (and) kind of hit the wall a little bit,” Barnes Arico said. “But we’ve been spending some extra time talking to her, encouraging her. She’s really responded the last couple games and found her stride.”
But Barnes Arico isn’t surprised by Thompson’s production. She was the leading scorer over the summer when the team played three games overseas during its trip to Europe.
“Overseas this summer, she was incredible,” Barnes Arico said. “(During one game) she was 7-for-9 from three. And I picked on her after, saying, ‘Are you going to be a one-hit wonder? I mean, you can’t repeat this performance.’ And we had three games over there, and she did it every game.”
4. Michigan isn’t dependent on one scorer.
At the beginning of the season, all signs pointed to Shannon Smith as the team’s only big scorer. But through eight games that hasn’t been the case. The Wolverines found contributors throughout their lineup — four players average double-digit points, and 12 players have seen the court this season.
Thompson has become an unexpected difference maker for Michigan and has joined Smith as the go-to scorer.
Additionally, junior forward Cyesha Goree has played an invaluable role for the Wolverines, averaging 10.9 points on 62-percent shooting and seven rebounds per game. Goree has started all eight games and has been critical to the team’s success.
Michigan also has junior forward Nicole Elmblad, the team’s only returning starter, and sophomore guard Madison Ristovski, who average 12.3 and 9.3 points per game, respectively. Elmblad, the team’s lone captain, also leads the team with nine rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.
The Wolverines’ ball movement and team offensive success has made up for their small lineups and inexperience and is a big reason they are sitting two games above .500.
5. Bold Prediction: Michigan will make the NCAA Tournament.
Sure it’s a long way off, but the Wolverines have shown that they can play with Big Ten opponents and compete in the conference. Early season predictions pinned Michigan as a team that could miss out on the NIT Tournament, but early season production could set Michigan up to finding its way to a third straight NCAA Tournament berth by the end of the season.