To everyone’s surprise, the Michigan women’s basketball team’s window of contention in the Big Ten opened a year early. Led by second-year coach Kim Barnes Arico, the Wolverines earned their third consecutive 20-win season, made serious noise against big-time opponents like Michigan State and LSU, and laid an encouraging foundation for the future. The most impressive part: it all happened in a year that began with some close to the program questioning Michigan’s ability to win more than a handful of Big Ten games.
With the season over and the Wolverines in recovery mode, the Daily grades Michigan’s seven main contributors and hands out a few awards.
Junior forward Cyesha Goree: As a sophomore, Goree averaged a measly 2.7 minutes per game. But going into her junior year, she knew that a team with no experience in the post would count on her perhaps more than anybody else, and responded in kind. Goree dropped 20 pounds over the offseason, and it took no time at all for the results to show. Thirteen double-doubles later, it’s hard to imagine what else she could have done to improve personally, and the fact that she now owns Michigan’s single-season rebounding record speaks for itself.
Junior guard Shannon Smith: After transferring to Michigan from North Carolina, by way of Trinity Community College in Texas, Smith was a relative unknown entering the season. Her talent was obvious, and it became quickly apparent that it would translate to on-court results even in an entirely new and unfamiliar setting. Smith did a good job of scoring early in the season before her less experienced teammates settled into their roles, and of allowing freshman guard Siera Thompson to shoulder the scoring load from the backcourt late in the season once the offense grew into its own. When she played with an equivalent amount of energy on the defensive end, Smith proved to be a game-changer — she finished tied for the team lead in steals with 45. The bottom line is that Smith is a dynamic offensive player who did an excellent job facilitating the Wolverines’ offense, and she’ll continue to grow throughout the rest of her career.
Freshman guard Siera Thompson: Call her a freshman, but Thompson played like an upperclassman in her first year. She drained a 3-pointer in each of Michigan’s 34 games, jockeyed with Smith for the title of leading scorer throughout the second half of the campaign and shot .419 overall from beyond the arc. After scoring 13.2 points per game in her freshman campaign, Thompson is already on pace to become one of Michigan’s all-time leading scorers. With the Wolverines’ offensive core all slated to return next season, Thompson could become even more prolific as a scorer and add to her game as a distributor — she also averaged just shy of three assists per game.
Sophomore guard Madison Ristovski: Only on a technicality is the sophomore guard not, by consensus, one of the country’s best 3-point shooters. Ristovski’s 54 makes on 116 attempts were plenty for the Wolverines but not enough to qualify for the national standings, which require an average of two made 3-pointers per game. Ristovski ran into issues with inopportune turnovers here and there, but all in all, her clutch presence as a sharpshooter was invaluable, and it’s easy to see her growing into a force to be reckoned with.
Junior forward Nicole Elmblad: While her role may have been somewhat low-profile, Michigan’s season wouldn’t have been half as successful without Elmblad quietly directing traffic from the small forward position. Never animated and rarely the center of attention, the Academic All-American quietly averaged 11.4 points and 7.6 rebounds and held down the fort as Michigan’s only experienced returner.
Freshman guard Paige Rakers: Given her status as a role player (Rakers averaged less than 14 minutes per game), it’s hard to evaluate her on a full season. While she lacked the poise that made Thompson so impressive, Rakers was good for the occasional dramatic 3-pointer. She didn’t play enough to be consistently impactful, but will be a useful piece moving forward. Rakers doesn’t yet have the skill set to contribute on the level of Thompson, though to be fair, the bar Thompson set for freshmen is hardly one that even an above-average first-year player could be expected to reach.
Senior forward Val Driscoll: Driscoll is an interesting case, in that she was essentially a freshman experience-wise heading into her senior season. Scoring-wise, she seemed lost in the early going, but underwent a remarkable transformation midway through the season that saw her develop a real presence in the post, a beautiful mid-range jumper and a penchant for picking up blocks on the defensive end. While Goree typically overshadowed Driscoll at the forward position, the senior’s accomplishments are among the team’s most notable, and are certainly worth celebrating.
Head coach Kim Barnes Arico: Barnes Arico claimed at the beginning of the season that she fully expected the 2013-14 campaign to be a transition year for the Wolverines. It was an honest prediction, which makes the masterpiece Barnes Arico spun in 2013-14 all the more impressive. She’s starting to play with her recruits and her talent, and it’s clear that Barnes Arico has a vision for turning Michigan into a destination program. If this season is any indication, she’s headed in the right direction.
Most Valuable Player: Goree
Freshman of the Year: Thompson
Most Improved: Driscoll