In its first games away from Crisler Center in the 2023-24 season, the Michigan women’s basketball team faces a three-game gauntlet of neutral site games in the Bahamas. After taking care of business against Purdue Fort Wayne and Oakland, the Wolverines will now face their toughest opponents in the young season over the weekend.
With a chance to bring home an early-season tournament championship in November, this will be a testing ground for Michigan, an opportunity to prove that they are ready to matchup up with stronger challengers.
Starting the bracket off against Middle Tennessee State, the Wolverines will have to change their game plan to adjust for the Blue Raiders’ height. Starting is 6-foot-6 center Anastasiia Boldyreva, followed off the bench by 6-foot-5 center Lullia Grabovskaia. The pair will certainly be a point of concern for Michigan, as its tallest starter is 6-foot-3 senior forward Cameron Williams.
“Obviously part of our emphasis coming into this tournament (is) can we rebound with some of these teams,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Friday. “ … It’s going to be a great challenge, a great test for us in the first game to see, ‘Can we outrebound our opponents?’, ‘Can we defend them?’ ”
Complementing the height of Middle Tennessee State is guard Savannah Wheeler. Standing an entire foot shorter than Boldyreva at 5-foot-6, Wheeler is the C-USA preseason player of the year, and makes up for her height with an innate scoring ability at 18.3 points per game. The Wolverines will have their hands full containing the Blue Raiders in multiple facets of the game, but it’s a challenge accepted with open arms.
“When you sign up for a tournament like this, you know the competition is going to be great,” Barnes Arico said. “On every single night you’re going to play a great team.”
Following the result of the Middle Tennessee matchup, Michigan will still have two more games to play. The second will come against either Depaul or South Dakota.
The Blue Demons currently stand at 2-1, with their only loss coming by seven points to No. 17 Louisville. Two of their five starters are transfers from the Wolverines — guards Kate Clarke and Michelle Sidor. Clarke is the leading scorer for Depaul thus far and is shooting 45.5% from deep to start the season. The Blue Demons are a deep squad, with no starter averaging over 30 minutes per game, and have already faced tough competition entering the tournament, making them a battle-tested opponent that would certainly give Michigan a tough matchup.
The Coyotes are also 2-1 while also taking a loss to a ranked opponent, No. 22 Creighton, although it was a 26-point defeat. They are led by guard Grace Larkins, a first team all-Summit League player last season. Larkins and forward Tori Deperry both are averaging a team-high 13 points per game, and will be the players to watch for if the Wolverines find themselves matched up against South Dakota.
After game two, Michigan will face a final challenger from the other side of the bracket, one of Ole Miss, Howard, Arizona or Memphis — in either the championship or a consolation placement game.
“It’s the start of the season, being able to just get out there and do what we worked on … it’s going to be a great opportunity for us to be able to come together,” junior forward Laila Phelia said. “I feel like it’s going to be really exciting for us, especially as a new team just coming together.”
Getting the opportunity to face off against talented out of conference opponents early in the season will be the Wolverines’ first true challenge. Battling size and all-conference talents will be something very new to Michigan this season, and doing it all in three days straight brings a March-like feeling to a team that has just begun its season. While the road ahead is tough, the Wolverines have a chance to bring home a championship in the Bahamas and face heightened competition in the process.