A new coach’s truest test comes when his or her own recruits begin to take center stage. Winning with someone else’s talent is easy; losing with someone else’s lack of talent is forgivable. Winning with your talent is the sign you’ve arrived; losing with your own lack of talent … well, that won’t be a problem for Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico.
The skipper has plenty of talent on her hands entering her third year at the helm of the Michigan women’s basketball program. And as that talent begins to dominate the landscape of her program, the time is now for the Wolverines to leap into national prominence.
Competitive windows open and close, and apt as she is when it comes to developing young talent, there’s no avoiding the productive hit Barnes Arico’s team will take after losing seniors Shannon Smith, Nicole Elmblad and Cyesha Goree to graduation.
So while Barnes Arico’s squad will inevitably make forward progress in the next three seasons, its best opportunity to make the leap from developing program to annual contender is now. The Wolverines have a proven post presence in Goree, one of the conference’s scrappiest and most underrated players in Elmblad and a senior backcourt presence in Smith.
Their strengths don’t lie entirely with their seniors, though — a trio of guards is waiting to shoot the Crisler Center lights out from behind the arc.
Sophomore Siera Thompson was one of two players in the country to drain a 3-pointer in each of her 34 games played in 2013-14. Junior Madison Ristovski set the Michigan single-season record for 3-point percentage, converting on 46.6 percent of her attempts last year. And if the hype is real, freshman Katelynn Flaherty might be the best shooter on the squad.
The Wolverines will need to run and gun from long range if they want to build upon last year’s success. Elmblad and Goree made it clear last season they’d never be out-worked, and with Elmblad at small forward and Goree at power forward, the duo could be unstoppable.
But Michigan doesn’t have much size to work with, or depth at the forward position. With 6-foot-4 forward Val Driscoll lost to graduation, Goree will play center exclusively, pushing Elmblad to the power forward position. If the Wolverines are going smaller, they’ll have to go faster and further outside.
Barnes Arico is coy when asked whether her expectations for this year’s squad are higher. For a program that hasn’t advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since its inception in 1973, her long-term expectations are lofty. Her expectations are also the reason she’s in Ann Arbor, and the reason she owns a collective .627 winning percentage in her first two years with the program.
Of course Barnes Arico’s expectations are lofty. The Wolverines lost less than 10 percent of their scoring and return 87 percent of their total minutes played from last season. All that after the team’s third consecutive year with 20 or more wins, a first-time feat for the program.
Just how high are they? Barnes Arico wouldn’t ever say, but expectations higher than a 20-win season imply a win total in the low to mid-20s. And a win total in the low or mid-20s means an NCAA tournament berth, and maybe even a spot in a top-25 poll at some point.
The talent is there. The experience is there. The shooting and speed are there too, and there’s enough depth that Michigan’s talented backcourt can rest, run the floor, then rest again without jeopardizing the on-court productivity.
The coaching ability is there too — for all the flak Athletic Director Dave Brandon is taking for the Michigan football program’s recent miscues, it certainly seems he got this one right. Barnes Arico will be in Ann Arbor as long as she wants.
This year could be the year that Michigan fans take notice of the oft-overlooked “other” basketball team. It’s about time they do, just in time to watch the Wolverines make a leap 40 years in the making.
Facher can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @levfacher