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Naz Hillmon and Haley Brown have played in every game of their Michigan careers.

Together, the junior and senior forwards have played in a combined 158 games for the Wolverines, each playing more than any other player on the team except for fifth-year senior guard Akienreh Johnson. 

There is no doubt that Hillmon and Brown are the backbones of the team. Their powerful play in the post is the centerpiece of Michigan’s offense and, even with a greater emphasis on 3-point shooting early in practice, that isn’t going to change anytime soon. 

But you can’t win a game, much less a Big Ten Championship, with just two players. Though the entire starting lineup is back from last year, all eyes are on the bench players to see who can step up and provide that extra spark to get the Wolverines over the hump.

Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico intends to play between eight and ten players per game. Johnson, sophomore guard Maddie Nolan and junior guard Amy Dilk rounded out the starting lineup for the last part of the season last year with Hillmon and Brown. At least for the beginning of the season, this will remain unchanged as it did much of last year. With practice picking up, there is nothing set in stone, but things are starting to take shape.

Nolan and Sidor have been two early standouts. No longer new to the team, Barnes Arico believes the experience they now have will pay dividends as they continue to grow and become bigger contributors to the team. 

“We always talk to the juniors and seniors, you know, you’re not young freshmen and sophomores anymore,” Barnes Arico said. “Now you have to take a leadership role, and now you have to bring more to the table than you did when you were freshman and sophomores.”

While Nolan and Sidor are still only sophomores, they still figure to take bigger leadership roles. This shows that their confidence and playmaking abilities are coming into their own. Nolan looks to pick right where she left off last season. She started the final 11 games of the season, averaging 35.8 minutes, 10.2 points and five rebounds in the most important stretch of the year. 

In Michigan’s upset win over Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament, she scored 13 points and had eight rebounds, both career highs. Nolan’s ability to stretch the floor and hit clutch shots will prove pivotal for the Wolverines as they look to improve their offensive efficiency. 

And coming off a frustrating freshman campaign, Sidor is looking to find the groove that made her a four-star recruit and put her on the Naismith’s watch list for the nation’s best player out of high school. Through extra work in the gym and a year under her belt, Barnes Arico believes this will come with time. 

“Our team really took the offseason and the COVID period to work on their individual shooting skills and better their game for the good of the team,” Barnes-Arico said. 

Entering her junior season, guard Danielle Rauch has only started three games. Over the span of her two-year career, she has only attempted 24 total shots, 16 from the field and eight threes. Last season, Rauch filled Kayla Robbins’ role when Robbins went down with a season-ending injury and is again ready when called upon. 

Nolan, Sidor and Rauch are all key players who have impressed early in practice. However, this seemingly never-ending offseason will provide ample opportunities for other players, especially freshmen, to get up to speed and prove themselves. 

With Michigan having a more experienced team, the freshmen will be mostly learning the ropes from the older players in practice. However, the four freshmen —  forward Whitney Sollom, guard Elise Stuck, forward Cameron Williams and guard Meghan Fiso — are impressing early.  

“Elise Stuck has been working incredibly hard and just does all the intangible things,” Barnes Arico said. “There’s a lot of little things. She rebounds the ball, has a certain toughness about her and can play multiple positions. She’s undersized, so she could play the post for us, but she can also move out to the wing spot and shoots the three exceptionally well.”

With Hillmon and Brown anchored down in the post, Stuck could see more minutes at guard. Both Stuck and Williams will benefit from having Brown and Hillmon as teammates. While they might be waiting on the bench for substantial playing time until Brown and Hillmon graduate, the freshmen will learn invaluable lessons from the team’s two shining stars. 

“I think (Stuck and Williams) came here with a camera and for an opportunity to learn from two great post players,” Barnes Arico said. “Then have an opportunity to get some minutes and get some experience from (Hillmon and Brown).”

With a solid starting five that took shape towards the end of last season, this depth will be the key to whether or not Michigan will see success this year.

“We are a little bit different (from last year),” Barnes-Arico said. “We’re a little deeper than we were last year. I think our freshman will provide depth for sure, but our sophomores that have experienced a game last year will definitely help.” 

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