There’s no magical formula for setting a lineup.
Whether coaches rely on a single superstar, a one-two punch of capable players, a solid five-player starting lineup or any other combination of talent, there is no one right way to build a promising team.
But every team faces challenges throughout the course of their seasons. Superstars can get injured, one-two punches sometimes don’t have the right chemistry, starters usually need time to rest. And in those challenging moments, the depth of a team’s bench becomes the most important variable. Although successful teams don’t always employ the same strategies, most effective approaches involve a strong bench.
The No. 14 Michigan women’s basketball team is a prime example of how important a deep bench can be.
“We have a tendency that once you get into league play, your bench usually shrinks,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Jan. 14 after defeating Michigan State. “But one of the things that we preach inside our program is that if you continue to work hard, and if you continue to make progress, you will get an opportunity.”
Throughout the opening non-conference slate of the Wolverines’ schedule, every healthy player secured at least a few minutes on the court.
Naturally, as the season wears on and matchups become tougher, fewer players will earn significant time. But even in recent Big Ten games, Michigan is still reaching deep into its bench and finding important production from players who haven’t consistently secured major floor time.
Against the Spartans, sophomore guard Jordan Hobbs played 22 minutes off the bench, allowing the Wolverines to more effectively match up against Michigan State’s smaller lineup. She made a notable impact in the contest, hitting two 3-pointers and drawing two charges while also bringing energy to the team.
“They went with four guards, so we went with Jordan Hobbs,” Barnes Arico said. “She’s had an opportunity to do that the last couple games and really came in and gave us some great minutes.”
Securing more and more minutes as Michigan has moved further through its season, Hobbs’s progression epitomizes Barnes Arico’s focus on offering opportunities to players who work hard and improve their game — even in the heart of Big Ten play.
And Hobbs has run with that opportunity, proving herself as a valuable asset on the court. In the Wolverines’ loss to then-No. 16 Iowa on Jan. 7, Hobbs played in the most important moments down the stretch and was key in keeping the game within reach.
“When we can have Jordan Hobbs at the four, I think it’s huge to space the floor when she can knock down shots on the outside,” graduate forward Emily Kiser said. “I mean, who are they going to double off of at that point?”
Sophomore guard Ari Wiggins has found herself in a similar position in Michigan’s most recent games. In seven minutes of game time against Purdue on Jan. 10, Wiggins made an impact with multiple impressive passes and two hard-fought rebounds, in addition to drawing a charge. She played 12 minutes off the bench against the Spartans, her most since Nov. 11 when the Wolverines faced Saint Francis (PA).
With Wiggins, Hobbs and sophomore guard Greta Kampschroeder — Michigan’s sixth player for the majority of the season — all available off the bench, the Wolverines have three dynamic guards who can be subbed in even when facing tough opponents.
Not only that, but the depth also allows Michigan the opportunity to rotate fifth-year Leigha Brown from the point guard spot to the wing, where she is especially dangerous as a shooter.
In the frontcourt, junior forward Elise Stuck and freshman forward Chyra Evans have both secured quality minutes off the bench. Stuck has played in every game thus far, while Evans started gaining traction in recent games as she recovered from injury, before hurting her ankle early against Michigan State.
“The deeper you can go on your bench, the better — especially in the Big Ten,” Kiser said. “I feel like we all beat each other up all season, so when you can go three, four, five deep into your bench, it’s huge.”
That impact extends beyond clear production. In addition to allowing starters ample time to catch their breath on the sidelines, being able to extend far into the bench also presents a scouting challenge for opposing teams as they prepare for matchups. They can’t always prepare for every bench player, presenting opportunities for effective and impactful performances.
As Michigan continues to tinker with its lineups and strategy, it has numerous variables that can be used to generate success.
Maintaining a deep bench could continue to be one of them, and it will likely become even more important as conference play wears on.