Though many members of the Michigan women’s basketball team shared their excitement to play in the Virgin Islands at the aptly named Paradise Jam, it wasn’t just beaches and sunshine.
The Wolverines were to be tested on the hardwood against two ranked opponents, No. 25 Gonzaga and No. 10 Florida State, and Winthrop.
It was a daunting task for unranked Michigan. And while it's still too early to tell what the NCAA Tournament implications will be for the Wolverines, if there are any at all, they knew going in that they would have to at least make the games competitive to earn respect.
And they did just that, going 2-1 for the weekend with an upset over Gonzaga, throttling of Winthrop and a tight contest against Florida State.
Unlike the past three seasons, it wasn’t about earning the respect of being a worthy adversary. It was the respect of being a top-tier team in the country, and putting a number before its name on opponents’ schedules.
Michigan saw its last top-25 ranking in the 2012-13 season, when it peaked at No. 23 in the Associated Press poll during week 12 — the last season it made the NCAA Tournament. Monday, the AP Poll again left them out of the rankings with just 22 votes, good for 33rd.
But if the Wolverines’ performance in the Virgin Islands is any indication, it is time that their unranked streak comes to an end.
Prior to facing Gonzaga for its first game on Thursday, Michigan hadn’t even received a vote in the AP Poll this season. So when it met a lengthier Bulldogs team that had trounced No. 11 Stanford on the road in its previous game, it seemed like it would be a long night.
But it wasn’t. The Wolverines not only upset Gonzaga, 78-66, but also outplayed them wire-to-wire without giving up their lead.
Michigan’s three-headed monster of Katelynn Flaherty, Siera Thompson, and Hallie Thome combined to shoot 23-for-38 from the field and dished out 14 assists — proving yet again they make up one of the most dynamic trios in the country.
The Wolverines were impressive against the Bulldogs, but it was their matchup against Florida State that shed the most light on Michigan’s potential. The final score was lopsided in favor of the Seminoles, 76-62, but for three quarters, the Wolverines held their own against a top-10 team.
Michigan’s deficit came as close as five points in the fourth quarter. It topped Florida State in nearly every category on the stat sheet, but was ultimately plagued by foul trouble, getting outshot at the free-throw line 34 attempts to 11. Notwithstanding the loss, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico sees her team’s confidence growing.
“(There were) definitely a lot of positives and hopefully this continues to motivate us moving forward,” Barnes Arico said. “I think our team is really excited about what we have and what we can be.”
We’ll never know what the score would have been if Michigan committed fewer fouls, but one thing is abundantly clear: The Wolverines look legit through their first seven games.
Playing against all calibers of competition, Michigan holds the fourth-best scoring margin in the country (34.1 points per game), the amalgam of the 11th-best scoring defense and 12th-best scoring offense.
“If teams don’t see us,” Barnes Arico said, “they don’t understand how fast we really like to go, how much we share the basketball in transition, make extra passes and how we can knock down shots.”
Even with a three-guard offense reliant on mid-range and 3-point shooting, the Wolverines still have the nation’s second-best field goal percentage (51.8).
Michigan, of course, isn't perfect. It has battled inconsistent ball handling and foul troubles — both byproducts of a more up-tempo, aggressive gameplan. And 14-point losses aren’t flukes.
But all of the pieces are there: an All-American shooting guard, a floor general, a plethora of rebounders and a bench that can run five players deep. Even the coaching staff has stuck together, now in its third season.
Thus far, these pieces have put together a stat sheet that tells the story of a top-25 team. And if that isn’t enough, the Wolverines have looked pretty damn good on the eye test, too.
With powerhouses like Maryland and Ohio State in the Big Ten, Michigan still may be a ways away from being conference title contenders. But the Wolverines aren’t a walk in the park, either, and they should garner the respect of being a true threat. A spot on a national poll would do just that.