Preseason expectations are a fickle thing. An offseason can be filled with thoughts of hope, aspiration and unbridled optimism. Or it can be filled with a rebuilding mentality. Whatever it is, it can all change in an instant.
The Michigan women’s basketball team falls into the first category. There is no avoiding the obvious: This is one of the most talented teams the Wolverines have had in many years. But just how far will those expectations take them?
Michigan has been on a steady ascent since Kim Barnes Arico became the head coach almost eight years ago. Now, in Arico’s ninth season, those expectations have reached new heights.
Over Barnes Arico’s eight seasons, there have been a few things to note about the team at any given time. A good player here, a noteworthy stat there. But this year, there seems to be a long list of not only accomplishments, but never-before-seen feats for the program.
Leading the list, as she does most things with the Wolverines, junior power forward Naz Hillmon was named Preseason Co-Big Ten Player of the Year. She is the first Michigan player to ever receive this award. On top of that, she was named on the Katrina McClain Award’s watch list for the nation’s best power forward after finishing as one of five finalists for the award last season.
There is no denying that everything to do with the team runs through Hillmon. She is the cornerstone of the team both on and off the court. After starting every game in her breakout sophomore season, Hillmon is the clear leader and the team’s main source of offensive production.
“I think Naz Hillmon and Amy Dilk and the rest of our team really took the offseason and the COVID period to, you know, work on their individual school skills and better their game for the good of the team,” Barnes Arico said.
A large majority of the preseason hype around the team rests squarely on Hillmon’s shoulders. If she were to get off to a slow or shaky start, those expectations would quickly plummet, but this seems far from likely.
A much more likely scenario is that Michigan will go however far Hillmon can take them. Her play in the post is vital to the offense. She worked to improve her jump shooting in the offseason, and, if that can prove to complement her play in the paint, the Wolverines will field a team that can compete for a Big Ten Title –– even against the formidable likes of Maryland and Iowa.
But this is a team sport, and every superhero needs their sidekick. Michigan will be hoping junior point guard Amy Dilk can be that player. Dilk was just named to the Nancy Lieberman Award’s watch list as one of the top 20 point guards in the nation. She started every game for Michigan last season and finished fifth in the Big Ten in assists. If Dilk can have more prolific performances like the one she turned in last year against Florida State, when she played the entire game and went 10-for-12 from the field, she can be a worthy second star.
“I think it’s great to see the experienced kids, in Naz Hillmon and Amy Dilk who have been two-year starters for us,” Barnes Arico said. “They really led out there.”
That experience has instilled confidence within the program and around the country. In the first AP poll of the year, the Wolverines are ranked No. 25. After losing in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals last season, they were on the outside looking in of these rankings, although a NCAA Tournament berth was imminent before its cancellation. Michigan was also voted as the third-ranked Big Ten team by the coaches and fourth-ranked by the media. If the coaches’ ranking holds true, this season would tie for Barnes Arico’s best finish and serve as a notable improvement from last year’s seventh-place performance.
If the Wolverines live up to expectations, a Big Ten Championship could be within striking distance. While Maryland and Indiana still remain favorites to win the title, Michigan is inching closer.
“We’ve had runs and we have chances, and I think we left last season, obviously, without having an NCAA Tournament on a really high note,” junior guard Danielle Rauch said. “We’re really excited to get into that. But just really pushing ourselves to be in the top three in the conference, and then hopefully win a Big Ten championship.”
It is very possible that the Wolverines could make more of a hop instead of a leap in terms of climbing up the rankings this season. But even if that leap doesn’t take place this season, it is not too far off. After national signing day yesterday, Michigan has the 17th-ranked recruiting class according to ESPN.
If the laundry list of early-season accolades can live up to the hype, the Wolverines can break through and position themselves in the upper echelon of women’s basketball, something they have never done before.
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