Jillian Dunston leaves no doubt.
It’s Media Day at Crisler Center and the senior forward is taking questions. The one at hand: Tournament or bust?
Dunston has yet to play in the NCAA Tournament. Ditto for guard Katelynn Flaherty, the most talented scorer ever to put on a Wolverine uniform. And if neither of Michigan’s two seniors have gotten there, it’s not hard to figure out that none of the other nine members of the women’s basketball team have either.
The Wolverines haven’t danced since the 2012-13 season, Kim Barnes Arico’s first as head coach. But this is their best chance to do so since then.
Of course, so was last season. Michigan went 22-9 in the regular season with an 11-5 mark in the Big Ten. It spent time in the AP Top 25, staying in the polls until late in the year. Even after losing three of their last four regular season games and getting bounced in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament by Michigan State, the Wolverines thought they had earned a bid to March Madness.
Heartbreak came on March 13, when ESPN’s selection show came and went without Michigan’s name getting called. Instead of the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines went to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament for the third consecutive year.
Michigan went on to win the WNIT. They’ll raise the banner before Friday’s opener against George Mason, the first banner any women’s basketball team will put up at Crisler Center. But let’s be clear; that isn’t enough.
The bar for success this year is simple: get to the tournament.
There’s no doubt this team has enough talent to do it. Flaherty is back and set to become the program’s all-time leading scorer. She averaged 18.9 points per game last year on 38.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc, then went home this summer and learned how to run point. That’s where she’ll start this year, and even with the potential for growing pains, it’s hard to believe Flaherty won’t earn a nod to the All-Big Ten first team for the third straight year.
“The game has slowed down for her,” Barnes Arico said on Oct 27. “And a lot of times as freshmen, you know, it’s so fast. And sophomores it becomes a little bit slower, juniors it starts to click. She’s a senior for us now and everything is clicking for her.”
Along with Flaherty, junior center Hallie Thome – named to the preseason All-Big Ten team in both the coaches and media polls – will provide the bulk of the scoring. Junior shooting guard Nicole Munger is a threat from outside as well, shooting 42 percent from three last season.
But the Wolverines are more than three players. If Dunston was a football player, she’d win the Gruden Grinder award every week and sophomore Kayla Robbins looks like her natural successor. (Ironically enough, Robbins’ father, Kevin, played in the NFL for three seasons).
Freshmen Hailey Brown and Deja Church look ready to contribute in big ways as well. Brown went for 10 points and seven boards in the Wolverines’ exhibition game against Grand Valley State. As for Church, we saw what Barnes Arico meant when she said the freshman could be one of the best defenders in the league: a flying transition block, two steals, and strong defense throughout.
The only issue from the exhibition was depth. Michigan went with a seven-woman rotation and that strain could eventually take a toll, even if the Wolverines manage to stay healthy.
There’s also the potential struggle of replacing point guard Siera Thompson. Flaherty looked good against Grand Valley State, but that was a Division II school in an exhibition game – not the best parallel to Big Ten competition. Chances are she will struggle eventually. Flaherty herself more or less acknowledged this on Media Day.
“(At point guard), you don’t have to be good skill-wise, you have to know the game well,” she said. “You have to know where to put your players and know what plays to run. I think that’s something that’s harder for me: trying to think on the fly.”
Church and Brown won’t instantly be All-Americans either. They’re freshmen, after all, and it takes time to learn the college game, let alone build chemistry with a new team. The team’s trip to Italy over the summer was useful in that area, particularly for Church, who pointed to it as a moment where her confidence grew. But continuity doesn’t just happen – it takes time to build and not an insignificant amount of time at that.
This team isn’t perfect. It likely won’t win the Big Ten and expecting any team in the country other than UConn to win a national title is a fool’s errand. But the Wolverines don’t have to do either of those things. They just have to make the tournament – and that they can do.
The talent is there. So is the motivation.
When the WNIT banner is raised on Monday, Michigan will remember its triple-overtime triumph over Georgia Tech in the tournament’s final. It should also remember selection night: the broken hearts and the cold reality that – at least in the eyes of the committee – it wasn’t good enough.
This year is about one thing for the Wolverines: making sure that scene doesn’t repeat itself. It’s tournament or bust. Simple as that.