Monday’s matchup with No. 6 Indiana provides the No. 7 Michigan women’s basketball team with an opportunity it hasn’t had in its entire history — to take control of the Big Ten title race.
It won’t be easy, but it’s attainable. Time and time again this Wolverine squad has risen to the occasion and won games that, in previous years, it simply couldn’t. After avenging last season’s tournament loss to Baylor and thrashing Big Ten powerhouse Maryland on the road, Michigan has shown the ability to hang with the nation’s best programs.
The Hoosiers present what could be the Wolverines’ toughest matchup yet, while simultaneously providing Michigan with the opportunity to assert itself as a true juggernaut.
“Monday will certainly be a challenge,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They’re a top team in the country, and they’re coming to our home court.”
The matchup will be the first game Indiana plays since narrowly escaping Purdue on the road on Jan. 16 — a result of a surge in COVID-19 cases among the Hoosiers has forced the postponement of three straight games.
In addition to struggles with illness, Indiana has also dealt with injuries. Star forward Mackenzie Holmes suffered a knee injury in early January. After a successful surgery on Jan. 20, Holmes is expected to be out of the Hoosiers lineup for the foreseeable future.
While Indiana isn’t at full strength, it still poses a sizeable threat. The Hoosiers sit at 14-2 — including a perfect conference record. They have only dropped games against No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 NC State.
“They’re a super physical team,” Hillmon said. “We haven’t played them yet this year, but we know that from the past. And obviously, they’re at the top of our conference right now.”
While Indiana has been sidelined, the Wolverines have sparked a hot streak. Michigan’s last eight games resulted in wins, including road wins against then-No. 8 Maryland and No. 22 Ohio State.
Riding a wave of efficient 3-point shooting, paired with senior forwards Naz Hillmon and Emily Kiser dominating the paint, the Wolverines have created an offense that excels both inside and out. With Holmes — the Hoosiers leader in blocks — out of action, Hillmon and Kiser could find success down low.
With Indiana presenting a physical style of play, though, Michigan is going to have a hard time doing what it does best: controlling the glass. The Wolverines have outrebounded opponents by an average of 9.7 per game, an emerging part of their identity. If Michigan’s prowess on the glass carries into Monday, it could further exploit Holmes’s absence.
“Rebounding will be a big component,” Hillmon said. “But, we just need to play our game and play Michigan basketball. Having our fans there will probably help us a lot.”
Monday’s matchup provides the Wolverines with an opportunity to make history. The possibility of a win against one of the nation’s premier programs — and with it, capturing the top spot in the Big Ten — would propel the program further into uncharted highs. Despite the stakes, though, Michigan is approaching it like just another game.
“Our kids know the importance of that game, and the next game,” Barnes Arico said. “There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, and we have a tough schedule to finish up the year, so we take it one game at a time.”