With only four games remaining before the Big Ten season, the Michigan women’s basketball team is still searching for a consistent lineup. Head coach Kim Barnes Arico has already used two different starting lineups through the Wolverines’ first nine games and is prepared to make more changes in the future.
“I think there’s always the ability to change,” Barnes Arico said after an exhibition win over Slippery Rock on Nov. 2. “I want the kids in the program to know that if they do really well in practice, they’re going to have the ability to start. I think (the lineup) is a game-to-game situation.”
In its first six games of the season, Michigan started with only two forwards — seniors Rachel Sheffer and Kate Thompson — to complement guards senior Jenny Ryan, sophomore Brenae Harris and sophomore Nicole Elmblad. Wednesday’s 56-45 victory over Illinois State marked the third consecutive game in which Barnes Arico started senior forward Nya Jordan over Harris, giving the Wolverines added height on the floor.
It’s no secret that one of Michigan’s biggest weaknesses is rebounding, where the team has been beaten on the glass in four of its nine games. Though the Wolverines have an overall rebounding advantage over opponents, 317-294, their production on the glass in games against lesser competition won’t cut it against teams in the Big Ten. In its last win over Illinois State, Michigan gained its biggest difference of the season, outrebounding the Red Birds, 42-24.
“Our number one concern on the year is our rebounding,” Barnes Arico said after a a win over Detroit on Nov. 9. “Coming into the year we were last in the Big Ten last year in rebounding. We haven’t improved our size or our athleticism up front, so I know every single night it’s definitely a concern.”
Michigan’s three starting seniors — the team’s three leading scorers — appear to have locked in their position in the lineup. Thompson, who averaged only 8.2 points per game last year, has been the top contributor with 15.7 points per game this season. Sheffer provides Michigan with a dominant post presence, averaging 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Ryan leads the team in minutes while averaging 12.9 points per game.
“I think Jenny Ryan is a kid that has played these kind of minutes her entire career and can just go forever,” Barnes Arico said after a win over Florida last week. “For us to be successful, (Ryan) needs to be out on the court. … Without her on the court we’re a completely different team.”
The only other player who has started in all nine games is Elmblad. At 5-11, Elmblad leads the team in rebounds, averaging 7.1 per game, and her 25 assists are good for second. Elmblad has seen the second most minutes on the court, behind Ryan, yet she averages only five points per game. At 16-for-59, Elmblad also has the lowest shooting percentage of anyone who has played in more than two games for the Wolverines this season. In addition, she has only connected on 1-of-20 shots from behind the arc, and is second on the team in turnovers.
Barnes Arico has yet to make a concrete decision about what to do with the fifth spot in the rotation. Jordan, who replaced Harris after the win over Boston, is averaging 3.9 rebounds per game compared to Harris’ 1.9 per game. However, Harris has an advantage in both points per game and shooting percentage. The deciding factor may come down to whether Barnes Arico is okay sacrificing ball handling for added size — Jordan provides the bigger rebounding presence, while Harris can take pressure off Ryan at point guard.
Michigan’s bench has only two other players that have played notable minutes this season, freshman guard Madison Ristovski and senior forward Sam Arnold, despite the injury bug that has plagued the team. Ristovski, who was in competition for a starting position at the beginning of the year, has played well in her rookie campaign, averaging 3.6 points in 18.6 minutes per game. She may be able to snag a starting position later in the season if she can prove that she can facilitate the offense and limit her turnovers.
“I thought Madison Ristovski is getting more and more comfortable,” Barnes Arico said after a loss to Duke on Nov. 28. “She hasn’t had in a turnover in three or four game, which is impressive for a kid coming in playing against a bunch of All-Americans.”