COLLEGE PARK — In games against ranked Big Ten opponents, the No. 13 Michigan women’s basketball team is 0-for-4.
Against Ohio State, the Wolverines’ season-high turnover numbers and stagnant offensive performance sunk them. Against Iowa, it was second-chance points and struggles against the zone defense. Against Indiana, it was poor rebounding and subpar defense.
And finally, against Maryland on Thursday, it was yet another combination of those struggles that left Michigan winless when facing the best of the conference.
Granted, the best of the Big Ten are also the best in the nation. All four of the aforementioned teams currently boast a top-10 national ranking — a level of conference strength that Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico and her players are well aware of.
“Our league is stronger and better than it’s ever been,” Barnes Arico said Jan. 23 after losing to the Hoosiers. “So we even talk about (how) any game we play night in and night out is going to be a tough one.”
Barnes Arico is right — the Big Ten is arguably the best conference in the country — but the Wolverines consider themselves part of the Big Ten’s upper echelon. They’ve stood by their preseason goal of winning the conference, and they firmly believe in their rightful place among the heavyweights.
It’s one thing for a team to believe in itself and its capabilities, but after losing to every high-level Big Ten opponent it has encountered thus far, Michigan needs a reality check. It simply doesn’t have the results to back up that confidence.
If the Wolverines want to legitimately prove themselves as a top team in the conference, that’s exactly what they need to do. And it’s exactly what they haven’t been able to do thus far — to prove it.
“We know we’re a top team, so I don’t think we need to beat one of the top teams to know what we’re capable of,” senior guard Maddie Nolan said Jan. 21. “Obviously we want to win and be at the top of the Big Ten standings, but I don’t think it’s like, ‘oh, we have to beat (Indiana) to be considered one of the top.’”
Junior forward Cameron Williams emphasized Nolan’s sentiment.
“We’ve built our program so much to the point where we are kind of expected to be one of these top teams,” Williams said directly after Nolan. “So I think it’s not more so like, ‘If we don’t beat them then we’re not as good of a team’ because we all know that. The country knows that. It’s just a matter of going out there and showcasing our principles every game.”
Against the 10th-ranked Terrapins, Michigan once again failed to go out there and showcase its principles.
The Wolverines were sloppy with the ball, allowing Maryland to score 25 points off of their 24 turnovers. They struggled to find an offensive rhythm, falling victim to zone defense and lacking in off-ball movement. Multiple players succumbed to early foul trouble, with two of them fouling out in the final minutes of the matchup. And they failed to contain Maryland guard Diamond Miller.
Michigan hung around for the first half of the opening quarter, but it slowly started to crumble and dug itself too deep of a hole to recover from.
“We were able to cut (the lead) a number of times, but (Maryland) had some big time players that made some big time plays,” Barnes Arico said. “And I just think it shows the strength of the Big Ten conference from top to bottom, stronger than it’s ever been before.”
Barnes Arico further reiterated that strength later in her postgame press conference:
“We just had two really good opponents back-to-back and we obviously lost two games, but just the strength of our league and two really great teams.”
Sure, a single-digit deficit at the final buzzer between two top-15 teams might exemplify the strength of the conference to which they both belong to. But at the end of the day, consistently walking out of the locker room with a loss and leaning on the strength of the Big Ten as justification is not a quality of a truly elite team — especially one that places itself on the same level as those top conference teams.
The Wolverines still have time to turn their beliefs into reality. They’ll get another shot at Ohio State and Indiana in the regular season, and the Big Ten Tournament always provides an opportunity to make a run regardless of regular season standings.
But if Michigan wants to fulfill its lofty goals, it needs to match its actions to its words. No more excuses, no more hollow declarations of belonging among the top teams in the conference.
It’s time for the Wolverines to go out and prove it.
Goldman can be reached on Twitter @lysgoldman and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.