What’s wrong with the Michigan women’s basketball team?

After getting off to the best start in program history, including a 4-0 start in conference play, the Wolverines have lost three-straight, and four of their last five.

So, what’s wrong?

When the season started, the Wolverines (5-4 Big Ten, 16-6 overall) knew they would find themselves with size issues, but their hot perimeter shooting helped mask the problem. Senior forward Kate Thompson is the tallest player on the floor, at 6-foot-4, but her talent has never been utilized under the basket. Instead, her presence is felt out on the wing. In the first 15 games, Thompson averaged 16 points per game, including 3.96 3-pointers per game, which at one point was good for first in the nation.

Thompson’s shot, however, has gone cold. During Michigan’s last five games, Thompson has averaged 12.2 points per game on 29-percent shooting.

“Kate needs to do a better job,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I think teams really push her up and off the screen and really do not even allow her to use screens. Every shot she has is pretty much a contest shot. Other people need to make plays off of that.”

But it’s not only Thompson.

Michigan’s five seniors, who account for 82 percent of the production, have been the offensive leaders all season. Michigan has also looked to sophomore forward Nicole Elmblad, who is second on the team with 6.1 rebounds per game and is the only underclassman to start. Beyond those six players, though, Michigan has struggled to find its offense.

The shallow bench has proven to be a huge problem throughout the Wolverines’ losing streak. Senior guard Jenny Ryan has played all but nine of the last 200 total minutes of play, and her fatigue often shows. With injuries crippling the bench during the offseason, a thin rotation has meant that the starting five are on the floor for most of the night.

With players reeling from fatigue, Michigan is no longer able to mask its turnover issues with speed and athleticism.

“The players have to know at this point in the year that we’ve got to be able to bounce back,” Barnes Arico said. “We need to be able to regroup, (be) as positive as we can, but also at the same time to work on what we need to work on.”

The Wolverines’ 61-46 loss to Michigan State on Monday was a must-win game, so their game against Illinois (6-3, 13-8) on Thursday is even more dire.

Michigan needs both Thompson and senior center Rachel Sheffer to shoot out of their slumps if the Wolverines are to end their longest losing streak of the season.

The Fighting Illini have had the opposite type of season. After starting off slow, Illinois has bounced back to win six-straight road games and six of its last eight overall. On Monday, the Fighting Illini were named ESPNW’s national team of the week after winning three games in seven days.

Senior guard Adrienne Godbold, who missed the first semester of play (academic ineligibility), leads Illinois with 18.6 points per game in her 10 games back.

In addition, senior forward Karisma Penn has been the Fighting Illini’s most lethal player, averaging 18.5 points per game on 50-percent shooting to go with 10.1 rebounds per game. At 6-foot-2, Penn will find herself matched up with Thompson in a battle of scoring forwards.

If Thompson and the Wolverines can break out of their losing streak, they can still find themselves in the thick of the Big Ten race.

“If we don’t improve, it’s going to be a long year,” Barnes Arico said.

A loss would put Michigan in the bottom five in the conference standings, making Thursday a must-win game to save a season that started off as the best in program history.

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