After making the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history last season, the No. 3 seed Michigan women’s basketball team will look to expand on its NCAA Tournament success this year. The Wolverines’ journey tips off with Saturday’s Round of 64 matchup against No. 14 seed American University.
“So pumped that we’re a three seed,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Sunday. “So pumped that we’re getting to host and we’re still playing.”
Despite earning the prestige of a No. 3 seed, however, Michigan has struggled as of late. The Wolverines have lost four of their last six matchups, a severe dip in form from their midseason peak. With Michigan entering tournament play, here’s everything it needs to do to make it back to the Sweet Sixteen — and perhaps go even further.
The Wolverines — specifically senior wing Leigha Brown — need to stay healthy. Brown missed five games in February with a left leg injury down the stretch of the season, and her absence has impaired the Wolverines, especially on the offensive end. In games that Brown has played 20-plus minutes, Michigan is 15-3 with its losses coming against Louisville and Nebraska twice — both teams that have made the NCAA Tournament. When Brown has played less than 20 minutes, the Wolverines are 7-3, with losses coming against Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa. Neither Michigan State nor Northwestern made the NCAA Tournament.
“We haven’t had Leigha for a few of those games,” Barnes Arico said. “Even without Leigha we were pretty successful. We were able to get Maryland and Iowa at home. So, getting healthy is first and foremost.”
Averaging 14.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, Brown provides a secondary scoring option that complements senior forward Naz Hillmon’s interior game. Her presence is a necessity if Michigan wants to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. And if she’s fully healthy, it very well could.
Win the Rebound Battle
Perhaps the most important factor in the Wolverines’ regular-season success was their domination on the glass. Michigan outrebounds its opponents by an average of 10.3 rebounds per game — good for seventh in the NCAA.
“We just had to out-tough them and not just hang on our player and wait for the ball to come to us, but actually going to get it,” Hillmon said after Michigan beat Ohio State on Jan. 27. “That’s really been one of our points of emphasis all year, trying to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. And it starts with our effort.”
Hillmon’s attitude reflects how, for the most part, Michigan owns the glass. The Wolverines average 40.3 rebounds per game, but in their six losses they’ve reached that mark just once — against Northwestern in double overtime. Dominating the glass is crucial for Michigan’s success, and it will have to continue excelling at it to make a deep Tournament run.
Take Care of the Ball
Turnovers were potentially the Wolverines’ biggest weakness in the regular season. Michigan averages 16.1 turnovers per game — tied for 206th amongst all NCAA Division 1 teams.
In spite of their turnover woes, the Wolverines have still managed to win marquee games in which they’ve turned the ball over 20-plus times. Against Indiana on Jan. 31, Michigan turned the ball over 25 times yet won by 15. When facing off against Maryland on Feb. 20, the Wolverines accumulated 22 turnovers, but won the game by 12. In its 19-point blowout of Ohio State on Dec. 31, Michigan turned the ball over 21 times.
In those games, the Wolverines were able to get away with turning the ball over at a high rate against good teams. Indiana ranks as a No. 3 seed, Ohio State a No. 6 seed and Maryland a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While Michigan managed to win regular-season matchups against top-tier competition, March is a different animal.
“We always talk about how we’re at our best when we’re limiting our turnovers,” Barnes Arico said. “So, working on taking care of the basketball and transition defense has been another real point of emphasis.”
While the Wolverines are working on ball security, it remains to be seen if they can effectively finish possessions. On possessions that don’t end in a turnover, Michigan regularly gets high-percentage shots — specifically from the interior.
Score on the Interior
The Wolverines are one of the most efficient scoring offenses in the NCAA. Shooting 45.3% from the field — good for 15th in the NCAA — is a result of Michigan’s strong interior presence. Leading the charge is Hillmon. Hillmon averages 21 points per game on 56.5% shooting, the 14th and 19th highest marks in the NCAA, respectively.
Hillmon’s chemistry with senior forward Emily Kiser produces open looks for both of the Wolverine bigs to finish. Playing alongside the all-Big Ten first-team forward, Kiser has had a career year, averaging 9.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
“One of the big things right now is that we’ve been doing a lot of two-post low, whereas in the past we have one post high and one post low,” Hillmon said after Michigan beat Purdue on Jan. 24. “Having both of those down there we have to sit on the defender, so there’s a less likely chance they double.”
As the pair averages 30.7 of Michigan’s 73.1 points per game, frontcourt scoring is an integral part of the Wolverine offense and something they must capitalize on in the Tournament.
With a path to the Sweet Sixteen running through Crisler Center, the Wolverines — who are unbeaten at home — have the opportunity and aptitude to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. But as they progress further into the tournament, these four aspects will play an increasingly important role in dictating Michigan’s fate.