The Michigan women’s basketball team will face its mirror image on Wednesday.
The 23rd-ranked Wolverines (9-5 Big Ten, 20-7 overall) have fallen from the proverbial mountaintop, dropping three of their last four after being ranked as high as 13th. Minnesota (8-4, 19-6) has done the opposite, winning five of its last six to insert itself into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
A few weeks ago, ESPN projected them as a four-seed, with home-court advantage in the first two rounds, in the site's latest Bracketology, the Wolverines were given a nine-seed. Their margin of error is slipping away and, after freshman forward Hailey Brown suffered a lower leg injury during Sunday’s loss at Michigan State, the picture looks even more bleak.
Michigan could still get in even if it loses the next two. It has a strong resume, having beaten then-No. 8 Ohio State on the road, the Big Ten is third in RPI and a run in the conference tournament would mitigate late-season troubles.
Or, the Wolverines could avoid needing to make the argument at all. The way to do that is simple: Beat the Golden Gophers.
But simple doesn’t always translate to easy.
Minnesota starts four guards, a combination that will force Michigan to switch between man and zone on defense. If Brown is unable to go, the Wolverines will likely start freshman guard Deja Church in her place and go man-to-man. That would entail putting senior forward Jillian Dunston on a guard, but Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has been unafraid to do that in the past. Dunston is capable in those situations, but a size mismatch could favor the Golden Gophers. If Brown plays, the Wolverines will start in zone, moving to man when Church is in the game. Either way, Michigan will shuttle between them depending on which lineup is in the game.
It doesn’t help that the Minnesota one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation, notching 110.5 points per 100 possessions, according to HerHoopStats. Kenisha Bell, Carlie Wagner, Destiny Pitts and Gadiva Hubbard — their four starting guards — all average double-digit points. Though defense hasn’t been the Wolverines’ issue of late, Michigan will be tested on that end.
The Wolverines’ best chance of winning on the road will be via shootout. Michigan scored below .85 points per possession in two of its last three games, accounting for its worst two offensive performances since a 74-49 loss against then-No. 5 Louisville in November. Not so coincidentally, the Wolverines turned it over 26 and 23 times in those two games, respectively.
“That’s been really the problem, and we work on it,” Barnes Arico said after Sunday’s loss. “… I think, coming into the year, we really knew that that might be something that could be a problem for us because we weren't returning a point guard. … When we get frazzled a little bit, when we get bummed, when it’s physical a little bit, we have turned it over. So it’s definitely a work in progress.
“I think part of it is, you know, not really having that true point guard. You know, Katelynn (Flaherty) has done a tremendous job for us filling that role, but now we’re looking at Katelynn to distribute, to score, to do a little bit of everything. So, you know, it’s important that somebody else relieves some of the pressure for her, which I think Deja’s doing and is gonna improve on. But she’s not completely ready yet.”
If that’s the case, Church has to get ready fast. Michigan has gone with a seven-woman rotation for most of the season. Without Brown, sophomore guard Akienreh Johnson will likely see a minutes uptick, but she’s been a less than reliable scorer this season, albeit in just 7.5 minutes per game. Junior guard Nicole Munger will pick up some of the slack, but it’s hard for Flaherty to do much more than the 23.6 points in 36.7 minutes she’s averaging right now.
There’s an element to this game that can’t be measured with statistics, though. A win will seal the Wolverines a tournament berth, at least as much as a thing like that can be sealed.
Michigan has been free falling. The Golden Gophers are fast-rising. It’s crunch-time. If the Wolverines don't reverse course, they will either back into the tournament by the grace of good luck or not get in at all.
Time to put up or shut up.