At the beginning of the season, I was forced to pick who I thought would win the Big Ten. Predictions are hard. I went with the safe choice and picked last season’s Big Ten champions, Maryland, to repeat.
At the time, I thought it was a good pick. But now, on Jan. 31, it’s become apparent that I was very, very wrong.
Because the No. 6 Michigan women’s basketball team is going to win the Big Ten.
“I think for our kids to come away and beat a team in our league that only has two losses, to Stanford and NC State — two top five teams — that we’ve lost to the last couple times we’ve played them,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “I think it’s a great moment for us.”
It’s been a remarkable season for Michigan so far. After entering the season winless against top-five opponents in program history, the Wolverines have just secured their second in a single season after beating Indiana at home, 65-50, on Monday.
And the win wasn’t a fluke.
Michigan didn’t have a particularly strong offensive showing — turning the ball over 25 times and making just one of its 11 three point attempts — but still managed to defeat the No. 5 team in the country by a 15-point margin.
The Wolverines have built their identity in the paint, playing tough defense and crashing the glass. All three of these strengths were on full display Monday night. Michigan outrebounded Indiana by an absurd margin of 52 to 20.
The most impressive part, though, is that the rebounding wasn’t coming from senior forward Naz Hillmon, the Wolverines’ top rebounder. She accounted for just five of Michigan’s boards. Whether it was senior forward Emily Kiser — who finished with a career-high 16 rebounds — snagging a missed shot, or one of the Wolverines’ guards flying in to secure the rebound, the whole team was contributing on the glass.
The defensive showing was equally impressive. Michigan held the Hoosiers to a season-low 50 points. Indiana’s top-scorer, forward Mackenzie Holmes, was watching from the bench with a knee injury, but holding the Hoosiers to just 50 points is still an impressive feat.
To further assert their dominance inside, the Wolverines poured in 46 points from the paint compared to the Hoosiers’ 28.
It was a massacre down low, and as a result, Michigan’s ball security issues and inefficiencies from range didn’t matter.
The Wolverines trampled Indiana.
That’s what great teams do. They find ways to win, even if things aren’t going their way, even if the situation doesn’t play to their strengths. And it’s what Michigan has done all season.
Against Baylor, the Wolverines shot 4-for-14 from three and turned the ball over 16 times. Throughout their thrashing of Maryland, they turned the ball over 19 times. And in Columbus, Michigan shot 5-for-16 from three and turned the ball over 17 times. The Wolverines won every single one of those games.
They scored more paint points and outrebounded each of those teams en route to what have become this season’s signature victories.
Michigan is a great team, and on Monday night, it proved it to the entire nation.
“Indiana was kind of the standard,” senior guard Danielle Rauch said. “They were at the top of the Big Ten and undefeated. We knew that coming in, and we knew that we were going to have to prove to everybody that we are the best team right now.”
It’s safe to say that they did.
The Wolverines don’t have an elite offense. They shoot a fairly average 46.1% from the field and 32.3% from 3-point range. Michigan more than makes up for it with a dominant interior presence, elite rebounding and strong defense.
The creation of a strong identity revolving around the Wolverines’ authority down low has made their mediocre scoring efficiency irrelevant. Michigan has played to its strengths and consistently beaten great teams. In the process, they’ve asserted themselves as one of the nations premier programs.
And now, for the first time in program history, they’re going to win the Big Ten.