Coming into this season, the biggest questions for the Michigan women’s basketball team were how to replace the program’s all-time leading scorer, guard Katelynn Flaherty, and how to maintain the team’s recent success. The Wolverines’ answer is twofold: the improvement of returning players and the evolution of freshmen.
Prior to this season, Michigan welcomed its highest-ranked recruiting class since the program’s creation. Highlighted by guard Amy Dilk and forward Naz Hillmon, coach Kim Barnes Arico’s freshman class consists of four former ESPNW 100 recruits, including forward Emily Kiser and guard Ariel Young, with guard Danielle Rauch rounding out the group.
“They’re definitely a special group of freshmen,” said senior center Hallie Thome. “They’re going to make an everlasting impact on this program for sure.”
For a team that has as many freshmen as it does upperclassmen, the younger players will play a pivotal role for the team going forward, with their collective successes telling of the Wolverines’ overall success.
In order to get there, though, the freshmen will need the guidance of the older players to help them improve their skills and better adjust to college ball.
“I think that if you’re on a team that’s just something that you expect,” said sophomore forward Hailey Brown on the older players’ mentorship role. “… This team is very unique because we can all learn from each other. It’s not necessarily that I’m someone’s mentor, it’s like, ‘What can I teach you, but what can you teach me as well?’ I think it’s a very cool role to have but it also works the other way, too.”
Due in large part to the skill level of every player on the Michigan roster, the freshmen have already noticed a vast improvement in their game.
For Hillmon specifically, the competition she faces in practice on a daily basis is far more competitive than what she faced in high school games, let alone in high school practices.
“In my high school, I was the only big, so I didn’t really have anyone pushing me every day,” Hillmon said. “But … (now) I have a lot of people to push me in practice and make me want to be better. The competition day-in and day-out is very different from high school.”
In addition to the change in basketball competition for the freshmen, they have also experienced the same transition to college life that every university student experiences at some point in their life.
Going about that transition can be hard for anybody, so it has been especially helpful for Hillmon and the other freshmen to not only have each other, but also have the older players guide them.
“It’s been awesome having someone to go along this journey with,” Hillmon said. “I would probably be terrified if I was the only freshmen, so (it’s nice) being able to talk to them and really vent when something isn’t going our way because it’s so different from high school. Having somebody there to encourage us — they know exactly what’s going on through my mind — so them being there to help me through it, just to talk to somebody or go and get food.
“But the upperclassmen are very helpful in that way, too, because they’ve been through it and they try to grab our hands and take us there with them, so that’s been very helpful as well.”
Barnes Arico has loved watching the bonds form between her older and younger players, and looks forward to watching the freshmen continue to grow as the season unfolds.
“I think we all are so excited about (the freshmen) class,” Barnes Arico said after an 88-40 win over Mount St. Mary’s on Friday night. “They’re a special group, led by Amy Dilk, starting at the point guard position for us. … But the rest of the freshmen really stepped up and were outstanding tonight as well. They’re a great group and they’re just gonna continue to improve as the season goes on.”
While this freshmen group may still be adjusting to the college life, once they are fully settled in and find their footing, they’ve got a chance at making a big impact in the Big Ten.