Last season, the Michigan women’s basketball team lacked starting experience. With just one starter returning from coach Kim Barnes Arico’s first season in 2012-13, the team began last year with an uncertain lineup.
Ultimately, the Wolverines fell short of the NCAA Tournament but finished with a 20-14 record and a trip to the third round of the WNIT.
This year, the situation is the opposite. Returning four starters from last season, boasting great depth on the bench and bringing in a freshman class that could make an instant impact, Barnes Arico is poised to make a deep run in her third year, even in a loaded Big Ten.
Some past concerns still remain — Michigan boasts very few true forwards, so it will be playing at a size disadvantage in nearly every game. To compensate, Barnes Arico will turn to a lineup of hard workers and lethal shooters, and fortunately, she has plenty of both on the roster.
For the second consecutive season, the Wolverines have a surplus of talented guards. Of the 14 players on the roster, nine are listed as guards and one is listed as a guard/forward swing player. And of those 10, four will likely find themselves in the starting lineup.
The point guard, shooting guard and small forward spots will be filled by some combination of 5-foot-7 guards, but each has plenty of shooting prowess to compensate for size.
Sophomore Siera Thompson returns as the probable starting point guard. Last season, she set a Michigan freshman record with 75 3-pointers, and was named an All-Big Ten honorable mention. She has hit at least one triple in every game of her career.
Senior Shannon Smith returns as the most experienced member of the backcourt. Barnes Arico designated Smith as the Wolverines’ go-to scorer last season, and she seized the opportunity. Taking nearly 40 more shots than any other player, Smith led the team with 13.8 points per game.
At the same time, she proved herself a capable distributor, pacing the team with 3.7 assists per game. Despite spending last year at shooting guard, Smith will likely slide to the ‘3’ this year to make room for another lights-out shooter.
Filling that role is freshman Katelynn Flaherty, who enters her first season at Michigan with the potential to be the best pure shooter on the roster. The prized recruit from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, has earned instant playing time thanks to her offensive ability. Flaherty knocked down five-of-six threes in last week’s exhibition game against Davenport, showing no signs of freshman nerves. Barnes Arico is hopeful that Flaherty will strengthen the team’s long-range game while drawing other defenders and opening up the floor for her teammates to score in the paint.
The Wolverines have scoring options coming off the bench at guard. Junior Madison Ristovski played in all 34 games last season despite making just 10 starts, but she set a school record by shooting .466 from beyond the arc. Sophomore Paige Rakers appeared in 32 games and finished third on the team with a .327 3-point shooting percentage.
Michigan likely won’t start a true forward at either of the ‘3’ or ‘4’ positions, but senior captain Nicole Elmblad is more than qualified to take on the power forward role. The unquestioned leader of the team, Elmblad has established herself as the best defender on the team and one of its top rebounders. Even though the 5-foot-11 Elmblad is listed as a guard and played the ‘3’ last year, Barnes Arico said she believes her skill set will help her through the transition.
As an alternative, Barnes Arico has considered starting freshman guard/forward Jillian Dunston at power forward and slotting Elmblad back at small forward. Dunston will likely see playing time either way, as she brings a high energy level and defensive presence that has impressed the coaching staff in the preseason. As Dunston works herself into the mix, Barnes Arico expects the freshman to use Elmblad as a role model to develop the finer points of her game.
Beyond those players, the Wolverines don’t have many other options in the frontcourt. Junior Kelsey Mitchell is back, but she played just three games last year and has suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and broken foot in her time at Michigan. The only remaining forward on the bench is 6-foot-1 freshman Emoni Jackson.
Coming off a breakout season at power forward last year, 6-foot-3 senior Cyesha Goree will assume the starting center role this season after Val Driscoll graduated. After years of improving her conditioning and working her way into the starting lineup, Goree has become the Wolverines’ most dependable post presence. She set a single-season rebounding record last year and also scored in double figures 23 times, proving herself a threat down low.
Michigan has even fewer centers on the bench than forwards. The lone backup is 6-foot-4 freshman Terra Stapleton, a McDonald’s All-American nominee from Proctorville, Ohio, who finished her high school career with 1,343 points, 877 rebounds and 326 blocks.