After missing the NCAA tournament last year due to COVID-19, the Michigan women’s basketball team awaited its fate.
The fate would be a No. 6 seed in the River Walk region. Michigan earned its highest seed in program history, with its previous best coming in the 2018 tournament when it earned a No. 7 seed. Michigan is joined in the region by fellow Big Ten school Iowa, who earned a No. 5 seed.
Michigan’s first game will be against No. 11 seed Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday at 3 p.m. If the Wolverines win, they will face the winner of 3-seed Tennessee and 14-seed Middle Tennessee matchup on Sunday.
The Eagles present a difficult challenge for the Wolverines. On a 24-game unbeaten streak, Florida Gulf Coast has yet to miss a game due to COVID-19 — something Michigan can’t say, having missed 10. The Eagles are led by sophomore guard Kierstan Bell, who transferred from Ohio State. The dynamic point guard can score as well as feast on the glass, averaging 24 points a game and 10.9 rebounds. Florida Gulf Coast is a team that loves to stroke it from beyond the arc, shooting 969 threes over the course of the season at a 33% clip. Defending the 3-point line could be crucial to the Wolverine’s success.
“They spread you out and play five out,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “We played them a number of years ago in the WNIT and it’s hard for post players to play because they are guarding guards. It’s a tough matchup for anyone.”
Going unbeaten in their first 10 games, the Wolverines struggled toward the end of conference play. Michigan went out in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to Northwestern, losing 49-65. Having previously beaten the Wildcats twice, the Wolverines struggled to find their shooting form and had early foul trouble. After three detail-oriented practices, Michigan switches gears to Florida Gulf Coast and their versatile offense.
“(The tournament is) something we’re very excited for, to have the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Barnes Arico said after the Northwestern loss on Thursday. “It’s something that we weren’t able to do last year. I like the fact that we have some time for preparation because our team could really use it.”
The Wolverine’s No. 6 seed ranking has much to do with the department-wide 14-day pause in January, which caused Michigan to miss six games. It’s possible the Wolverines would have found themselves in a higher seed had the pause not occurred, as they struggled to recapture their early-season form during the last stretch of the year. At a point in its season when Michigan should be in prime fitness, it is still working towards its peak.
“I keep a notebook of our practice plans every year and I wrote on practice plan 82 today,” Barnes Arico said. “Typically at this time, we’re on practice 102. That gives you a little bit of where we are.”
The Wolverines have an opportunity against the Eagles in the NCAA Tournament. Florida Gulf Coast can do everything the Wolverines have struggled to do: Shooting 3-pointers, taking opponents off the dribble and winning games down the stretch.
After a slow finish, San Antonio presents Michigan with a chance to recapture its first-half magic and prove its doubters wrong along the way.
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