Selena Sun/Daily. Buy this photo.

Heading into the 2022 season, the biggest question surrounding the Michigan women’s basketball team is crystal clear: 

How will the Wolverines replace Naz Hillmon?

Last year’s co-captain and top scorer, Hillmon leaves the team with big shoes to fill. After losing a player of her caliber, it would be easy for Michigan to get caught up in trying to find a player capable of closing those immediate gaps. But as the Wolverines attempt to regroup following the loss of Hillmon — in addition to last year’s co-captain Danielle Rauch and senior Amy Dilk — they aren’t just focused on this team and this upcoming season.

Instead, they’re still focused on building a successful program.

“One of the most important things when I came to the University of Michigan was building a program, not building a team year in and year out where we were drastically different,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Wednesday at Big Ten Media Days.

Ever since Barnes Arico took over as head coach of the Wolverines in 2012, that emphasis has been unmistakable. In her 10 years thus far, she has guided the program to unprecedented heights; Michigan has won at least 20 games in nine of her 10 seasons, advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 twice — including a trip to the Elite Eight last season.

This sustained success that has become the standard under Barnes Arico is not just the product of the specific players on the roster, but the system that they commit to.

“It’s built on players developing and players getting better every year,” Barnes Arico said. “And hopefully we’ll see a lot of that this season.”

One such Wolverine who is shaping up to be a key player in the program’s ongoing success is sophomore guard Laila Phelia. After a strong freshman season where she appeared in 29 games — starting in 14 — and earned Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors, Phelia looks to continue growing and contributing in spaces where Hillmon’s absence warrants extra help. 

Though she is certainly not the only player who will be important in furthering the Michigan program, Phelia’s impact as an established young contributor — who continuously works to get better — will be vastly important.

“Laila Phelia, who had a great freshman season for us this past year, is having a great start to her sophomore season in practice,” Barnes Arico said.

It’s that type of impact that creates a program which attracts players like sophomore guard Greta Kampschroeder, a transfer from Oregon State who will become the first McDonald’s All-American to play for the Wolverines.

In addition to player development, a shared mindset throughout the entire team — from coaches to players — is another vital component in building a successful program. And it’s one that rings true for Michigan.

“One of the goals at the University of Michigan for each one of our players is to continue to move forward and to build a program, not a team, and something that lasts forever,” Barnes Arico said. “And when you leave this program as a player, you want to leave your legacy, so that’s really something that’s important.”

Hillmon certainly left a legacy in Ann Arbor. But the team must continue to move forward without her and build its own legacy. And while daunting, the continued focus on the program as a whole has set the Wolverines up to conquer that challenge.