With Hillmon's departure, the Michigan women's basketball team has the opportunity to prove that it's not a team, but a program. Emma Mati/Daily. Buy this photo.

Standing at mid-court inside the Target Center at Big Ten Media Days, I surveyed the scene around me. As the players and coaches trickled out to their tables, a familiar face caught my eye: Michigan’s leading scorer from last season and one of the program’s all-time greats, Naz Hillmon.

This time, Hillmon wasn’t there representing the Wolverines, though. Rather, she served as a reporter for the Big Ten Network.

Instead, graduate forward Emily Kiser, fifth-year wing Leigha Brown and sophomore guard Laila Phelia took the podium. None of the representatives put up Hillmon-like numbers last year, but all three served as key players in Michigan’s best season in program history.

Following that historic season, where they reached the Elite Eight for the first time, the Wolverines enter the 2022-23 season with a massive hole to fill in Hillmon’s departure to the WNBA. With that gap, many people’s belief in the team’s ability to recapture that success has seemingly dissipated.

But Michigan isn’t a team built around one player. The Wolverines’ identity is rooted in their emphasis of developing a program. Even in the wake of losing a player who contributed 21 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, that outlook remains steadfast. 

“When I first came here, it was like ‘Can we build a program?’ ” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said at Michigan Media Day on Oct. 25. “… Michigan women’s basketball aspired to be that, a program, one that was consistent year in and year out. And that is the goal of our team every single season. We lost an incredible player, an incredible representation of this university in Naz Hillmon. But we have some really special pieces returning.”

The Wolverines are more than Hillmon, and this season, they have the pieces to prove that. For Michigan to show what it’s capable of, however, it needs to solidify an identity. If the Wolverines can’t, they’ll fall short of reaching the same feats they did the previous year.

Last season, their identity centered around Hillmon, and replacing what she brings to this team — both on and off the court —  is a daunting task. It’s a task that cannot be done with a singular player.

But it’s also one Michigan has encountered before.

Entering the 2018-19 season, the Wolverines’ primary task was figuring out how to compensate for the graduation of star player Katelynn Flaherty — the all-time leading scorer in both men’s and women’s Michigan basketball history. 

Following Flaherty’s departure, Barnes Arico focused on maintaining the team in front of her and developing burgeoning talent instead of dwelling on past triumph. That year, a new star emerged: then-freshman Hillmon. 

Since then, Barnes Arico has proven that the Wolverines aren’t a team. They’re a program.

Michigan added three freshmen this offseason: guard Kate Clarke and forwards Alyssa Crockett and Chyra Evans. While the three have impressed early and flashed potential ahead of the season, it’s unrealistic to expect any of them to round into a Hillmon-caliber player.

And that’s OK.

The Wolverines don’t need a new star — they need a group that collectively can cultivate the skill and leadership abilities Hillmon brought.

That reinforces the narrative behind Michigan’s ongoing vision: Its program isn’t formed because of a player, but its players formed because of the program. 

This season, the Wolverines are ready to prove that again. Already, their leaders have bought in. 

“I think we’re all trying to, as upperclassmen, as people who just play on the court, trying to pick (the leadership) up,” Kiser said. “ … You know, we pride ourselves a lot on just our team culture, and instilling hard work at setting that example from the start.”

As Michigan develops its identity, the role Kiser and Brown play in that quest will be imperative to its success. Both of the fifth-years held an important leadership position in last year’s team. If the Wolverines want to find similar success this season, though, the pair need to bring even stronger captaincy now. 

In many ways, having two strong leaders and a plethora of talent is more beneficial in the long run than the single-player structure Michigan had last year. Although Hillmon’s abilities basically guaranteed a significant amount of production every contest, it also made the Wolverines over reliant on her abilities in the post. 

So, as a strong program does, Michigan retooled its roster with a renewed emphasis on shooting. 

In addition to Kiser and Brown, senior guard Maddie Nolan has already showcased her shooting abilities and will take on an even greater role this season. The Wolverines also added a former All-American — the first in program history — transfer in sophomore guard Greta Kampschroeder, whose impressive shooting will be vital in their transition from last year’s post-dominated offense. 

Without Hillmon in the post this season, Michigan may find itself without some of the easy layups and boards it got last year, but her absence also enables it to expand its repertoire. In doing so, the Wolverines can balloon their identity beyond a single player and embrace the program-based mentality that got them where they are now.

“I think that’s really important, that we’re not going to be as one dimensional — as Naz-dimensional, as we should call it,” Barnes Arico said. “We will have multiple people that can do multiple things, and I think it’s going to be really important to keep their confidence and aggressive mentality.”

This mentality doesn’t seem to be going anywhere since Hillmon’s departure. In fact, the confidence can fuel Michigan this year and help it develop its post-Hillmon identity. An identity centered around its greater versatility that stems from incoming talent, returning leaders and strong shooting. 

Because the Wolverines don’t need transcendent talent, they need a transcendent program. Finding success this year, without a generational star, would be proof they can make that goal a reality.