Heading into last Thursday’s game against Iowa, the Michigan women’s basketball team had won only one of its previous six games. Something had gone awry as the Wolverines’ confidence was drastically shaken.
No longer was Michigan averaging 88 points, previously good for the third-best scoring offense in the country. At the beginning of December, the string of losses began with a 17-point loss to Princeton.
But coach Kim Barnes Arico is a veteran of the game, knowing when changes need to be made and what resources she should use to make those changes. In the course of one month, Barnes Arico helped the Wolverines realize that 17 points was an obstacle they could overcome when they came back from that exact number in the second half against the Hawkeyes.
“(Iowa) actually looked how we looked in the two prior games,” Barnes Arico said in her weekly radio show. “This is a team that has been off to a great start, was a ranked team in the country and they got super tight down the stretch.”
The Wolverines were anything but tight as they made a miraculous comeback to earn their first conference win this season. It was not only a surprise that Michigan made its largest comeback since 2007, but also that the Wolverines made any sort of last-ditch effort given recent results.
The three games leading up to Iowa had been anything but pleasant: a one-point loss against Eastern Michigan, a two-point loss to Purdue and a nine-point lead blown to Indiana in the final quarter for yet another defeat.
But Michigan regained its confidence leading up to its big break against Iowa, and it continued that success with a win against Minnesota four days later, evening out its Big Ten record at 2-2.
“We did spend a lot of time just trying to rebuild their confidence,” Barnes Arico told WTKA Radio on Tuesday. “We had three devastating losses that came down to the last possession of the game, and in all three of the games, we had the opportunity to win the game and kind of struggled down the stretch.
“That really affected our young kids’ confidence. … Even our older kids really didn’t play a ton of minutes last year where they were in those same positions. It was a new experience for all of us.”
So what exactly did Barnes Arico need to accomplish in order to turn the season around? Did the Wolverines need to practice their free-throws, considering they had missed 32 points from the charity stripe through six games? Did they need to practice rebounding? Maybe Michigan needed to work on passing?
According to Barnes Arico, it was as simple as taking pressure off of her players and lightening the mood.
Before Thursday, Michigan’s assistant coaches made a highlight reel of footage from games such as Xavier and UCLA, when the Wolverines looked like they were truly playing Michigan basketball.
The assistant coaches held an activity for the players to paint a non-basketball related word that was significant in their lives, which they later hung above their beds. This way, they could be reminded of the activity and its emphasis on taking a step back when the going gets rough.
“The kids really began to get confident again and really enjoy the process,” Barnes Arico said. “That’s something that we talk a lot about — enjoying the process. It’s not always just the outcome.”
According to Barnes Arico, sharing ideas among the coaching staff is a crucial element of success. The Michigan staff regularly sends e-mails to each other with links from social media or around the Internet, which sometimes include leadership presentations or inspirational talks from coaches around the country.
Outside the basketball realm, Barnes Arico has also found guidance.
The Wolverines’ student manager, the daughter of Michigan hockey assistant coach Brian Wiseman, asked if her father could attend a practice and see if there were any team-building activities he would find value in. Barnes Arico agreed, knowing Wiseman would do the same for her if she wanted to visit a hockey practice.
This collaboration between Michigan coaches is what Barnes Arico referred to as an “open-door policy.” In fact, she has gained plenty of insight from Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein through the years.
“In our profession, it’s really important that coaches feel like they can lean on other coaches,” Barnes Arico said. “All of us are in the same boat at some point or another. … Sometimes as a coach, what happens is you get so tight, then your players are getting tight (and) sometimes you just need to go to the movies.”
In one week, Michigan has loosened up and put the season back on course.