With key returning players like senior forward Naz Hillmon, the Michigan women's basketball team hopes to build off of its historic 2020-21 campaign Julia Schachinger/Daily. Buy this photo.

Since the Michigan women’s basketball team made the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history last year, this season brings understandably elevated expectations of success.

Last year encompassed a challenging season for the Wolverines, plagued by COVID-19 restrictions and quarantines. Despite these difficulties, Michigan ultimately prevailed, making its deepest tournament run ever, nearly taking down long-standing powerhouse Baylor in an overtime loss. 

This season, the Wolverines recognize their new role as a powerful team.

“It’s a little bit different of a role that our team is in,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said at the Big Ten Media Day on Thursday. “But I think we attack each day with the same mentality and just try to be the best that we can be today.”

Michigan graduated two valuable players last season, guard Akienreh Johnson and forward Hailey Brown, and their absences leave two gaps in the starting lineup. Johnson was the Wolverines’ best defender, and Brown their best 3-point shooter. But Michigan’s plethora of experienced players has left Barnes Arico unworried about filling their spots.

“I’m excited about our program,” Barnes Arico said. “Obviously, we have Naz returning, we lost two starters, but we have a great core returning, a great group of new assistant coaches, a lot of energy, and a lot of enthusiasm on our campus for sure.”

Despite losing Johnson and Brown, the Wolverines are returning their strongest senior class ever. Senior forward Naz Hillmon, last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year and second-team All-American, brings strong upperclassman leadership, alongside her tremendous talent on the floor. Last season, Hillmon averaged 23.9 points per game and 11.4 rebounds per game, leading Michigan in both categories.

Senior wing Leigha Brown is part of the dominating duo with Hillmon that the Wolverines have been searching for. Transferring from Nebraska last season, she turned out to be the wing player Michigan needed to fill in the gaps. She averaged 18.2 points per game, mostly thanks to her mid-range jumper and 3-point shooting. Averaging 3.1 assists per game, Brown is not only a scoring threat, but also a threat for post-passes to Hillmon.

“I think when you put (Leigha) and Naz together it’s an unbelievable one-two punch,” Barnes Arico said. “But we are not only a one-two punch. We have a whole team back in Ann Arbor … that are rooting for us, and cheering for us, but are ready to go.”

As for the remainder of the senior class, guards Amy Dilk and Danielle Rauch pose a threat in the point guard position, alongside forward Emily Kiser in the post backing up Hillmon. The chemistry among this senior class was evident on the floor last season, and it can only get stronger in their final year at Michigan.

While the senior class will likely dominate the starting lineup, the sophomore and junior classes have valuable experience that add a necessary layer of depth. Depth was key in the Wolverines’ success last year, especially amidst the unreliability of players eligibility due to COVID-19 quarantines and exposures.

Michigan’s incoming freshman class have also drawn some attention. The Wolverines have the No. 18 incoming freshman class in the NCAA. This includes two four-star recruits, No. 28 guard Laila Phelia and No. 68 guard Ari Wiggins.

With more eyes on Michigan this year, it could be a chance for the team to solidify its program legacy as a true contender in women’s basketball. But the Wolverines are more concerned about the journey, not the outcome.

“It’s just trying to worry about improvement, trying to worry about getting better, and not worry about the wins and losses,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s about the process and not the end result. We’ve got to concentrate on that … and just to try to be the best Michigan team that we can be each day.”