It’s obvious that the No. 6 Michigan women’s basketball team needs Leigha Brown.
Transferring from Nebraska after her sophomore year, Brown made an immediate impact for the Wolverines last season. The senior wing has continued to contribute and has played an important role in taking the Michigan program to new heights over the last two seasons.
But in both of her prolonged absences this season, her presence has been seriously missed.
The first came very early in the season, after an injury in the second game against St. Francis Brooklyn kept her out for the next five games. And while her absence was mostly inconsequential in minor non-conference games, it forced multiple underclassmen to pick up the slack, putting the Wolverines in a potentially risky position.
Michigan was able to get by with a win-by-committee style of play. In all five games, at least three players scored in double digits. After her return in the Daytona Beach Invitational against Oregon State, it was clear that her presence added important depth to the roster.
“We’re a different team with Leigha,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said after her return in the Daytona Beach Invitational. “She’s one of the best guards in the country. It was nice to have her this weekend. She’s a difference maker.”
Her second injury, though, has had much larger consequences.
Sustaining a lower leg injury after the Indiana game on Jan. 31, Brown has remained on the bench through four games. Two of the four matchups, against then-No. 21 Iowa and then-No. 13 Maryland, were close wins. The other two were upsets from unranked teams — Michigan State and Northwestern.
Without Brown, there’s a lot more uncertainty if the offense will actually show up.
Against Iowa, Michigan found its win-by-committee style once again, though against a much tougher opponent. Freshman guard Laila Phelia notched a career-high 24 points, alongside 26 from Hillmon. Junior guard Maddie Nolan and senior forward had 17 and 10 points, respectively.
Despite a rocky start in the Maryland matchup, the second half sparked the Wolverines’ guards to step up. Nolan and Phelia both had 11 points, and senior guard Danielle Rauch notched eight.
“When we’re having an inside-outside attack, we’re at our best,” Barnes Arico said after the win over Maryland. “And there’s always so much pressure on Naz, a double-team, a triple-team … so we were just really encouraging them at halftime to shoot the ball and to be aggressive from that guard spot as well.”
But against the Spartans and the Wildcats, it was a much different story. Having to make-up Brown’s 15.4 points per game and fill her role as the second leading scorer, Michigan has relied too much on Hillmon to carry all of the offensive weight.
Against Michigan State, the Wolverines couldn’t overcome their offensive deficit. Hillmon notched 27 points, but without her supporting cast, Michigan floundered. Rauch notched 12 points, but when the Wolverines’ main facilitator is also the second leading scorer, the outlook is grim.
In the triple-overtime matchup with Northwestern, Michigan couldn’t find any offensive consistency. Hillmon had just 16 points, well below her 20.9 points per game. Senior forward Emily Kiser and Rauch each had 13, but the majority of Rauch’s points came during overtime.
“We’re trying to find our identity,” Barnes Arico said after the loss to Michigan State. “We lost an all conference player for the second game who’s our leading guard scorer and is a dynamic player. So I think we’re trying to figure out where we’re going to make up 15 points a game.”
The two-game losing streak against the Spartans and Wildcats are more indicative of the Wolverines’ offense than the two close wins. Without Brown, Michigan has had to fight its way into every matchup, hoping one of its guards finds a spark. With Brown, the Wolverines have a clear idea of who their offensive production will come from.
And with the fate of the Big Ten title hanging in the balance, Michigan needs that clarity.