Weeks before the Michigan women’s basketball season began, coach Cheryl Burnett set the bar extremely high for her young team.

“Our expectations will always be — and continue to be — get into the NCAA Tournament,” Burnett said. “That’s what our program will have. We won’t go above that. We won’t go below that.”

For Burnett’s squad, there would be no excuses.

Playing in an extremely difficult Big Ten conference?

Didn’t matter.

Coming off a 14-17 season?

Didn’t matter.

Returning just three players?

Didn’t matter.

Now, with almost a third of a season in the books, the early returns are in. And while a 4-4 record might not have been exactly what Burnett envisioned at the beginning of the season, one thing is clear: At the very least, these Wolverines can hang with the big dogs.

From the get-go, Michigan embarked on an early-season schedule that would be daunting for any squad — no matter how experienced. Of Michigan’s first eight opponents, six played postseason ball last season and three are ranked in the top-40 of the current RPI ratings.

The Wolverines began their season in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where they took a tough Alabama team to overtime before suffering a two-point loss. Michigan’s first win came against Washington, which was fresh off a victory against a team that reached the semifinals in last year’s NCAA Tournament . There was no opportunity for relaxation on Thanksgiving weekend, as the Wolverines flew out to the West Coast and broke UC-Santa Barbara’s 12-game winning streak in the Thunderdome.

Even Michigan’s biggest losses –— a 13-point defeat at Charlotte and a nine-point loss to Eastern Michigan — were far from blowouts. Despite their ups and downs on the offensive end, the Wolverines’ defense has kept them competitive against any opponent. Burnett preaches a tough man-to-man defensive strategy, and Michigan buys into it. The evidence: Opponents have shot only 38.4 percent from the field, including a grotesque 24.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Of course, more than just good defense is needed for wins — Michigan needs to put points on the board. Not surprisingly, the Wolverines have turned to tried-and-true scorer Tabitha Pool to lead them offensively. At 6-foot-1, the senior forward is an impressive athletic specimen. She has the height to take on most post players, the athleticism to play on the perimeter and the jump shot to be a serious threat from the outside. Pool is almost averaging a double-double, scoring 15.6 points and pulling down 9.4 boards per game, both team highs.

While Pool’s scoring numbers have been remarkably consistent — she’s scored between 11 and 21 points in every game this season — the rest of the team’s offensive output has fluctuated wildly. Too often, the Wolverines look lost on the offensive end, dribbling the ball around the perimeter until the dwindling shot clock forces them to hoist up a low-percentage shot or rush into a turnover.

In situations like these, the onus is on Michigan’s few experienced players to make things happen. The Wolverines are at their best when Pool and sophomore Kelly Helvey are using their athleticism to penetrate and draw defenders into the lane. When its offense sputters, Michigan should be looking to get the ball to these two, who must be aggressive and take the ball to the rim. If the Wolverines want to compete with its Big Ten foes in the coming months, they must avoid falling asleep at the wheel offensively.

Although the offense still has kinks to work out, Burnett’s first recruiting class is filled with outstanding ballplayers. Becky Flippin is an excellent ball-handler who has emerged as a trustworthy pass-first, shoot-second point guard and a strong on-the-ball defender. Freshman Krista Clement is a natural leader who has shown an uncanny touch from beyond the arc. Katie Dierdorf and Ta’Shia Walker provide a strong presence in the post, while Janelle Cooper’s slashing, hustling play has carried Michigan through some rough offensive stretches.

With such an impressive nucleus of young players, the Wolverines undoubtedly have a bright future ahead under Burnett’s leadership. But the question remains: Is the future now?

Against a tough non-conference schedule, Michigan’s inexperienced roster has endured a trial by fire. And the Wolverines have not been overwhelmed. Regardless of the competition, they have hung right with their opponents. But by dropping close games to Alabama and Drake, Michigan wasted early-season opportunities to bolster its r

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