Entering the season, the Michigan women’s basketball team felt confident.
Confident that seniors Akienreh Johnson and Kayla Robbins could step into the starting lineup for the first time and play at a high level. Confident that sophomores Naz Hillmon and Amy Dilk would continue to grow into program building blocks. Confident that a bench lacking in-game experience could supplement its starters enough to take down top opponents.
In non-conference play, the Wolverines’ bench looked up to the task, scoring 21.5 points per game. While many of those games were against unranked, mid-major opponents, the bench contributed when the team needed it most.
Freshman center Izabel Varejão scored 5.3 points per game against Syracuse, Notre Dame and Florida State and led the team with 11 points against Eastern Michigan, a game when no starters finished in double figures. Freshman guard Michelle Sidor scored eight points against Notre Dame and seven against Syracuse, and was Michigan’s biggest threat from 3-point range in non-conference play, shooting 34.2 percent. Sophomore forward Emily Kiser scored 10 against Appalachian State with junior forward Hailey Brown injured.
In these first 11 games, the Wolverines’ bench by no means took over games. But with five starters that could control a game on any given night, Michigan’s performances from the bench seemed to be enough. The Wolverines looked like a true Big Ten contender.
But just five games later, Michigan’s bench looks like the inexperienced group that was its biggest question mark entering the season. Outside of a blowout win against Penn State in which reserves played the majority of the fourth quarter, the bench has scored just seven points per game in four Big Ten games.
“Now the people that we’re playing are bigger, faster, stronger, and that’s a little bit of an adjustment, especially for our younger kids,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “The physicality is definitely something that’s different, and the teams that we’ve played against, such as Maryland and Ohio State, are big and strong.”
The Varejão from the beginning of the season who looked like a valuable scorer has had difficulty finding the basket in Big Ten play — she has been held to two points or less in four of five games. Sidor has struggled from deep — making just 4-of-15 and 1-of-12 outside of the Penn State game — and has seen her minutes decrease as a result. Kiser leads all bench players, averaging just 3.4 points per game.
“Our freshmen are getting accustomed to that change of strength and speed and size,” Barnes Arico said. “So I think that adjustment is gonna take a little bit of time. They’re working on it. (It’s) definitely a place where we need to see more production.”
While Barnes Arico may feel confident that all of the Wolverines’ reserves can contribute if given the opportunity, it can take time for players to adjust to new roles. Consistently changing the rotation shows the difficulty Barnes Arico has had finding contributors off the bench. Freshman guard Maddie Nolan, who has played sparingly all season and mostly in blowouts, was the first guard off the bench on Sunday.
Sunday against Maryland — Michigan’s worst loss of the season — showed the Wolverines just how important having a good bench is. None of their starters could get going early, and as the Terrapins jumped out to a big lead, Michigan looked for someone to come off the bench and stop the bleeding, to no avail.
Maryland, on the other hand, also struggled to get points from their stars, but its bench was more than capable of carrying the load — scoring 15 of the Terrapins 21 first-quarter points, and 35 total. Maryland’s ability to get points from its bench, and the Wolverines’ inability to do so, made the difference.
Michigan is 2-3 in Big Ten play — far from the top of the standings. But with both Maryland games in the rearview mirror and 13 games remaining, its goals are still well within reach. As good as the Wolverines’ starters can be, this five-game stretch has shown that they can only reach their goals if they can rely on the bench to score.
In conference play, that hasn’t happened yet.