What a difference a year makes.
Last year, the Michigan women’s basketball team entered Selection Monday unsure of its fate. This year, the Wolverines knew they were a lock to dance — the only uncertainty was who they would face.
They didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Less than three minutes into the ESPN telecast, Michigan (9-7 Big Ten, 21-10 overall) learned its fate and was awarded an eight seed in the Spokane Region, tying a record for the highest seed in program history. The Wolverines will face ninth-seeded Villanova (9-7 Big East, 21-10 overall) on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. EDT in Palo Alto, Calif.
“I think that’s the earliest I’ve ever had a call going to the NCAA Tournament,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “But now we know, and we are ready to face (Villanova).”
The Wildcats finished sixth in the Big East, a conference Barnes Arico knows well from her time at St. John’s — she led the Red Storm to the Sweet Sixteen last season. In addition, Barnes Arico’s St. John’s team beat Villanova three times in a row, and her last loss to the Wildcats came in 2009.
“I know a lot about (Villanova),” Barnes Arico said. “Actually, I just saw a tweet that coach Beilein was talking more about the women’s game than the men’s game because he’s really good friends with (Villanova coach) Harry Perretta, too.”
Added senior forward Kate Thompson: “I think Coach coming from the Big East will be an advantage. She knows how they play (and) she knows all their styles. Definitely having coach Barnes Arico is going to have us prepared.”
But the Wolverines haven’t seen the court in 10 days and still have five days to go until they play again. This time off will either be a blessing or a curse for Michigan, whose longest gap in games this season was seven days.
In its game against Wisconsin after the bye week, Michigan looked sluggish, letting the Badgers rush out to an early 9-0 lead. The Wolverines were able to claw back at the end but probably cannot afford to start slowly in the tournament.
Michigan has had a season of streaks this year, but with more than two weeks off, the Wolverines have the opportunity to start fresh in the best place to get hot — the NCAA Tournament. The time might be a blessing for a team that has found most of its success from its starting lineup but has received little bench production.
“I think the time off actually benefits us because we play such a limited bench,” Barnes Arico said. “I think it gives the kids that play a lot of time to rest and recover. (Senior guard) Jenny (Ryan) played a tremendous amount of minutes all season long. It gives her a chance to rest and regroup and refocus for the tournament. It’s a whole other season for us.”
Ryan, who earned third-team All-Big Ten honors for the first time in her career, led the team in minutes, averaging 36.9 per game. Toward the end of the season, she was often on the court for all 40 minutes and her fatigue began to show.
“I think having some time off is not the worst thing in the world,” Ryan said. “It gives us a chance to recuperate, get (our) legs back under (us) and (time to) work on ourselves, because during the season you go from team to team, so I think it will be good for us especially offensively.
“I think we’ll be fresh. Have fresh bodies (and) fresh legs. We look at (the tournament) as a new season, and I think we’ll be ready to go from there.”
A potential second-round matchup with No. 1 seed Stanford looms, so a well-rested Michigan can’t get ahead of itself.
“The next couple days is going to be all Villanova,” said senior center Rachel Sheffer. “Just like the Big Ten tournament, you play back-to-back games, so all that really matters is the next game, and that’s Villanova.”