CHICAGO – At this time last year, the rest of the Big Ten was buzzing about Michigan’s chances in the conference at its annual Media Day for women’s basketball. The Wolverines were coming off a second round appearance in the 2001 NCAA tournament and were boasting an incoming recruiting class that included in-state stars Tabitha Pool and BreAnne McPhilamy. The rest of the Big Ten coaches placed them atop of the preseason conference coaches’ polls with 2001 national runner-up Purdue. It appeared that Michigan had arrived.
Fast-forward one year. The Wolverines are coming off a season in which they started 10-1, but ended 7-13, including their first-round exit from the WNIT at the hands of Valparaiso. Purdue is still selected in the preseason media poll to capture yet another Big Ten title, with Penn State favored in the Big Ten coaches’ poll. But the buzz has left the Wolverines’ corner, as Michigan failed to break into the top three.
Minnesota was selected to finish third, bringing about a general consensus that the Boilermakers, Nittany Lions and Golden Gophers are at the top of the pack this year.
“Being the underdog is something we’ve done before,” senior co-captain LeeAnne Bies said. “Some people may not like that role, but it can be used as a motivating factor.”
The Wolverines are returning four starters from last year’s squad. Bies is one of their returning seniors and was selected to the preseason All-Conference team at center. Fifth-year senior and co-captain Raina Goodlow also returns this season after missing all but five games due to a staph infection last year. Goodlow and Bies, measuring 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 respectively, bring a significant amount of size to the lineup. But more importantly, they bring experience.
The Wolverines are welcoming six freshmen onto this year’s roster. One of them is expected to emerge as a point guard, but such a set of inexperienced hands may be the reason why the Wolverines aren’t receiving the same amount of respect they did last year.
“We have a lot of experience coming back, but we also have a lot of inexperience where the ball is going to be handled,” coach Sue Guevera said. “It’s a matter of how quickly we can get that blend in.”
Those freshmen will be battle-tested early. The Wolverines have scheduled five teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year in their nonconference schedule. Then they’ll be faced with the rigors of Big Ten play.
“Every game is a challenge,” Goodlow said. “We need to focus not so much on who our opponents are but what we’re doing.”
But Michigan’s conference opponents will be hard to ignore. Players like Purdue’s Shereka Wright, a 2002 Naismith Award Finalist, and Penn State’s Kelly Mazzante, last year’s national scoring leader, will be venerable challenges for both the veterans and the rookies. But even these big dogs on campus know the Big Ten has a tendency to surprise.
“It’s still a dogfight,” Mazzante said. “Every team needs to be up for every game. There’s a lot of good teams.”
Besides Bies, the other preseason All-Big Ten members are Jennie Lillis from Iowa, Mazzante – who is the preseason conference player of the year – Wright and Lindsay Whalen from Minnesota.