As I watched the Michigan women’s basketball team throw its season away last Thursday, the irony of the situation began to creep up on me. The Wolverines were losing to an undersized team from Ypsilanti who were wearing green jerseys and playing some of its best basketball of the season — on Saint Patrick’s Day. In my mind, Michigan was not losing to Eastern Michigan, but to the Luck of the Irish.
How else could someone explain what was happening?
As one of the last teams to miss the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines were expected to contend for the WNIT title. The players seemed to be focused and ready to go that week in practice, talking about hanging the first women’s basketball banner in program history up in Crisler Arena.
But somehow, some way, I found myself listening to senior guard Veronica Hicks after the game as she described her last game wearing the maize and blue. In a season full of surprises, this had to be the biggest one.
Michigan started off the season predicted by no one to finish in the top three of the Big Ten, yet it finished third for the first time since 2001. At one point, the Wolverines beat three-straight ranked opponents, which included their 2-0 start in conference play. Perhaps most importantly, they swept that team down south for the first time in program history.
But with the highs came the lows. Michigan lost to Detroit Mercy early in the season, and to Big Ten bottom feeder Minnesota twice. The Wolverines’ slide toward the end of the season, though, is what ended up costing them a spot in the NCAA Tournament. In the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan received a first-round bye for the first time since 2001, yet lost to last place Illinois in its first game of the tournament.
That loss pretty much sealed the Wolverines’ fate, putting them on the outside looking in on the NCAA Tournament. The WNIT would have to be enough, as Michigan would extend its 10-year absence from the Big Dance.
Thanks to the Eagles, though, Michigan’s season is officially caput. The season ended before it should have, but I, the usual pessimist, am not worried. At all.
Michigan graduates only one senior — Hicks. Granted, that one senior is a huge one to lose, considering Hicks is one of just five Wolverines in program history with 1,000 points, 200 assists and 150 steals. Perhaps more importantly, Hicks was the team’s unquestioned leader and the emotional backbone — every single player leaned on her for support, on and off the court.
After Hicks’ last game in Crisler, her post game speech moved many people to tears, including her teammates. “Ronni” leaves the program having never made an NCAA Tournament, but the team she left behind has a great chance to do so.
Consider how much the Wolverines improved this year, even with their incredible youth. Then consider how much better all of those players will be after another six months of offseason basketball.
Michigan will return a talented nucleus of young players who can only go up from here. Juniors Courtney Boylan and Carmen Reynolds will step into the leadership role that Hicks left behind, as at one point or another this season they each carried the team. Reynolds was inconsistent throughout the season, but she is still atop Michigan’s all-time 3-point percentage chart at 43-percent in her career. Boylan lit a fire under the Wolverines midway through the season in her first career start, showing flashes of brilliance as starting point guard.
Sophomore guard Jenny Ryan has the potential to be the Wolverines’ best all-around player and even earn All-Big Ten honors — her only weakness is a sporadic jump shot. Sophomore guard Nya Jordan will finally be healthy, and she will step into to the slasher role the Wolverines so desperately needed late in the season when Jordan missed due to injury. And 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Kate Thompson used her height and wicked jump shot to create serious mismatches from the perimeter.
Sophomore center Rachel Sheffer developed into a legitimate offensive threat late in the season, as she ended up as the Wolverines’ second-leading scorer. Sophomore forward Sam Arnold will most likely remain the Wolverines’ post player off the bench, as she can score in bunches from both the center and forward positions.
Redshirt freshman Kendra Seto will also get a chance to play, as she sat out this year due to NCAA transfer rules. Seto averaged 10 points per game in her freshman year at Vermont and was named one of the Top-20 high school basketball players in Canada her senior year of high school.
All of the inexperience, dearth of height, and poor pre-season expectations were tied together by the mad man at the helm — coach Kevin Borseth. He took a supremely young team and led Michigan to its first winning record in the Big Ten in 10 years. He might be angry on the sidelines and seem crazy to the outsiders, but his players love him and he knows how to get the best out of them.
Obviously, most of this is speculation, but something tells me this team is headed in the right direction.
Nothing confirmed this more than the courts of the CCRB on Monday night. Among the regulars were six Wolverines, practicing for next years’ campaign less than a week after their season ended. It was 9:00 p.m. on a weeknight and the young Michigan players wanted nothing more than to dominate a game of pick-up basketball.
Michigan will miss Hicks, without a doubt, but the team she left behind has the potential to go far. Remember, this is a program that has made it out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament just twice. Ever. There have not been a lot of great teams in this program, but the future is bright in Crisler.
As long as the Wolverines don’t run into any Saint Patrick’s Day leprechauns, the outlook, for once, is optimistic.