This year, the goal is clear for the Michigan women’s basketball team. It is Big Ten Title or bust. The Wolverines wish to pick up where last year’s historic run left off by winning the Big Ten Championship for the first time in program history. Additionally, the expectation is to advance past the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. It is difficult for any sports team to replicate the success of a previous season, but it is necessary for Michigan to keep building in order to officially put its stamp on women’s college basketball.
While they haven’t explicitly called a Big Ten Championship their goal, it’s the obvious next step for the program. The five seniors — Emily Kiser, Naz Hillmon, Amy Dilk, Danielle Rauch, Leigha Brown — want to accomplish something that has never happened before. They believe they have established a strong culture harnessing veteran leadership, and they hope that it will help them succeed later in the season.
“We’re just trying to build (off last year), I feel like we already have a winning culture, and we’re just continuing to build off of that and just see how far we can go,” Brown said.
This senior class wants to be remembered, both on and off the court.
“Coach always talks about leaving your legacy,” Dilk said. “Obviously on the basketball court, but you know you want your program to keep growing.”
Despite their high expectations, the Wolverines come into the preseason ranked 4th in the Big Ten, behind No. 5 Maryland, No. 8 Indiana and No. 9 Iowa. The Big Ten continues to be one of the toughest conferences in women’s basketball, and in order to run the gauntlet, the Wolverines will need to push themselves.
Driving Michigan in the preseason has been the mantra that they are the “hardest working team in America.”
“Obviously, we have a really strong senior class of leaders,” junior Maddie Nolan said. “So just learning from them the past couple years, taking that and applying it to the sophomore and the freshman and just showing them why we are the hardest working team in America and just continuing to bring them along to our extra workouts and our extra shootings.”
Added Dilk: “We stand by being the hardest working team in America. I think you can say it but then you also have to do it.”
If the Wolverines hope to win the Big Ten Championship this season, they will need to see their leaders be their hardest workers.
And following the 80-57 home victory in last Thursday’s exhibition game, we are now able to get a snippet of what they may be able to offer.
Kiser saw her minutes increase dramatically in the exhibition game, playing nearly 25 minutes compared to last year where she averaged 12.5 minutes per game.
Her shooting may have not been what she had wanted it to be, finishing the day shooting 2-for-4 and 0-for-1 from 3-point range. But Kiser excelled defensively, finishing the game with a team-high three blocks and a plus-minus of 23. So far, she has been able to see improvements in one of her two goals: shooting and physicality.
If Kiser continues to develop her 3-point shot, teams will have to defend her from the arc, giving more opportunity to Hillmon.
To opponents’ dissatisfaction, though, is that Hilmon has started to develop her three-point shot as well. Over the past two seasons, Hilmon only attempted one 3-point shot. In the exhibition game, she made two of three 3-pointers. Though the exhibition game is a small sample size, her 3-point shooting could pay off in the long-run.
The Big Ten hasn’t played a Hillmon that can shoot from the arc. This would be a scary sight to imagine for opposing teams as they would have to reassess the way they defend her.
Dilk, who’s started since her freshman year, performed well for the night, finishing with 15 points and eight assists. With this being her final season, she wants to leave everything out on the court.
“I just want to go out and just leave everything on the court every single day, whether that’s in practice or games,” Dilk said. “Because you know, it does go by fast and the season is long, but it goes by fast.”
The journey to a Big Ten Championship starts this Tuesday night at home against Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. Michigan is expected to beat IUPUI, as its more difficult non-conference games won’t start until December.
But the slow start up will prepare them for games against the likes of Louisville and Baylor. For Michigan to achieve its goal of a Big Ten Championship, the senior class needs to truly establish this team as the hardest working team in America.
It’s been four years for this group to gel together and prepare for this year. If they want to end their careers by making history one more time, it is on them to do so.
Daily Sports Writer Mark Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org