Thursday’s game against Ohio State will mark the halfway
point of the Big Ten season for the Michigan women’s
basketball team. The Wolverines (3-4 Big Ten, 10-10 overall) have
not particularly mowed through any part of their schedule and yet
their longest losing streak is just three games — a skid that
occurred entirely on the road.

Amita Madan
Michigan coach Cheryl Burnett has seen her team struggle when any one of her top three scorers is unproductive.
BRET MOUNTAIN/Daily

So now that first-year head coach Cheryl Burnett finally has
some games as a Wolverine under her belt, should this kind of .500
performance be expected with this corps of players?

To say that Michigan underachieved in its prior two seasons
would be a gross understatement. Two years ago the Wolverines were
picked to finish in the conference’s top three, but ended up
with a 6-10 conference record and a first round exit in the WNIT.
And last year’s 3-13 Big Ten collapse after a 9-2 preseason
start has not been forgotten by those close to the program.

Which brings us to the present. No one knew what to expect when
Burnett was handed such an emotionally wounded group of players
this season, and even now it’s hard to get a handle on this
team.

There has certainly been marked improvement, probably related to
the change in leadership. During last week’s game at
Wisconsin, Michigan surrendered a halftime lead when the Badgers
cruised through a 14-2 run. Last year’s version of the
Wolverines probably would have folded. But Burnett’s crew did
not.

Senior center Jennifer Smith scored 14 of Michigan’s 16
points in one span, setting up a jumper by junior Tabitha Pool in
the final minute that sealed the deal in a 63-60 win.

The comeback win in Madison is one of many games this season
that shows that what is working for Michigan is the same thing
holding them back — star power.

Without Smith, Pool and senior Stephanie Gandy, Michigan could
very well be 0-20 right now. The three have scored 902 of
Michigan’s 1,226 points this year — almost 75 percent.
For two straight games against Indiana and Penn State, they were
the only Wolverines to make a field goal.

Simply put, they are the most valuable three players on the team
— the ‘MV3.’

“We want to get a lot of opportunities for four
players,” said Burnett, referring to Gandy, Pool, Smith and
sophomore Niki Reams after the Indiana game. “It
doesn’t always mean they are getting all the shots.
Let’s distribute and find some places for other people to
score. But the win is much more important than any individual
score.”

The problem is that the win is never guaranteed, especially when
the offense revolves around just three players. Even Smith, the Big
Ten’s second-leading scorer, has an off game from time to
time.

One of those games came on Jan. 18 at Michigan State, when the
‘MV3’ could only muster a combined 19 points in a 67-33
loss.

Freshman Kelly Helvey is one of those players who has tried to
ease the scoring load by firing up more shots than any
non-‘MV3’ Wolverine. But she’s shooting just 25.8
percent from the field and she knows how dependent Michigan has
been on the trio.

“When Smith is not scoring, Tab’s not scoring and
Steph isn’t scoring, no one looks to do anything, and no one
knows what to do,” Helvey said.

The ‘MV3’ couldn’t produce in Sunday’s
loss to Iowa either, when Smith played only 20 minutes due to foul
trouble.

“I talked to our players about not being in an offensive
rhythm, and that had something to do with Jen not being in
there,” Burnett said.

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, if you don’t have
rhythm, no one is going to invite you to the Big Dance at the end
of the year.

Even if the Wolverines are only as good as their top three
players, it seems like enough talent to get by. Gandy is a pure
leader, Pool was one of the top national recruits in her class and
Smith is one of the elite post players in the country.

But then there is the issue of next year. Smith and Gandy will
graduate, and Pool can’t score three-fourths of
Michigan’s points by herself. Even now teams are figuring out
how to slow down Smith, effectively slowing down the rest of the
Wolverines. If Burnett can’t spice up her offensive options
soon, something’s going to give, and it might be a chance at
postseason play.

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