All season, Michigan women’s basketball coach Kevin Borseth has preached the importance of defense. Whether it’s rebounding or blocking out, defense has seemed to be more of a focal point than offense.
When the Wolverines take on Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston on Thursday, they will be facing a team that, according to Wildcats coach Joe McKeown, centers its defense around stopping the opposing teams’ top-two scorers every game.
Focal point or not, the good news for Michigan is that it has done a tremendous job offensively of spreading the ball out among different players this season. The Wolverines have five players who average more than seven points per game as well as a slew of bench players that also contribute.
“On any given night, we have Kate (Thompson) coming off the bench who scores in double digits, and we have Rachel (Sheffer) who’s a scorer from both inside and out,” said junior guard Jenny Ryan. “If you just go down the list, I don’t know if they can key in on (one player).”
Thompson, a junior forward, averages 9.8 points per game, and Sheffer, also a junior forward, is scoring 13 points per game. The Wolverines leading scorer, senior guard Courtney Boylan, averages 13.1 points per game. The floor general has been the consistent leader for Michigan, playing 33.2 minutes per game — second only to Ryan, who averages about a minute more.
Though Michigan seems to be in good shape offensively, it has a difficult task ahead defensively. Northwestern boasts two of the best post players in the Big Ten — junior center Dannielle Diamant and junior forward Kendall Hackney. Those two average a combined 31 points and 11 rebounds per game for the Wildcats.
As the Wolverines’ starting post player, Sheffer will have the task of guarding this height. However, she doesn’t see it as her versus them down low.
“Just like any other team, most Big Ten teams have a big girl down low,” Sheffer said. “We just need to come together on the defensive end of the court. We front the post so it’s more of us coming together than me doing all the work.”
Michigan plays both man defense and zone defense, but either way, it takes a strong help defense to stop opposing post players. This is also because the Wolverines, lacking a true center, feature a guard-oriented offense.
Whether it’s rebounding or the imminent battle down low, Michigan will have one other struggle against Northwestern: playing on the road. The Wolverines are 8-0 in the trappings of Ann Arbor this season, but just 4-4 on the road.
Though the Wildcats may not be a typical Big Ten powerhouse, Welsh-Ryan Arena can still pose problems for an away team, evidenced by Northwestern’s 5-3 home record.
“Northwestern is definitely a different place to play,” Ryan said. “It’s kind of more of an old-school environment. And just like any time on the road, you have to create energy for yourselves and stay confident in what you do, and for better or for worse just stay consistent.”
However, Borseth plays down the effects of road environment on his team.
“All I think about is the x’s and o’s, and the jimmy’s and joes,” he said. “More so (at least), than home court (and) away stuff.”
Even if the Wolverine faithful don’t make their way out to Evanston, one Michigan player at least will have a cheering section on Thursday. Junior forward Sam Arnold, a native of Medinah, Ill. said she has “a lot of family and friends coming, (and) it will be fun.” Medinah is only 45 minutes away from Evanston, which should provide for a nice trip for the Arnold crew.
The game on Thursday against Northwestern will be important for the Wolverines’ confidence as their conference schedule gains momentum. Considering Michigan’s most impressive road win came on Nov. 11 against Florida, it needs to prove it can win against formidable foes on the road.