The players on the Michigan women’s basketball team shuffled off the court Sunday bearing smiles from their second blowout win of the weekend. Though the victories came against weak opponents — neither Western Michigan nor Bradley made the NCAA tournament last season — the Wolverines’ lockdown defensive performances earned them the right to celebrate, as they held both opponents under 60 points.
For Michigan to achieve its goals of competing for a Big Ten championship and passing the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it will have to sustain this level of defense against tougher opponents. And the key to that lies in the Wolverines’ length.
All five of Michigan’s starters this season measure in at 6-feet or taller, a rarity in women’s basketball. This kind of length means that players can more easily block shots and move into passing lanes to disrupt plays and intercept passes.
“(Coach Kim Barnes Arico stresses) using the ability of our length,” said sophomore guard Amy Dilk. “Our starting lineup, we all have tremendous length, so just really focusing on keeping our hands up, sliding our feet and not fouling.”
Senior Akienreh Johnson seems poised to make more disruptive plays on defense this year. The 6-foot shooting guard recorded 27 steals coming off the bench last season. If she can continue to move quickly on defense, clog lanes and force opposing teams into mistakes, she can expect to pick up a few more steals from her new starting spot.
“Our length is ridiculous this year for our starting lineup,” Johnson said. “It’s actually really crazy how many steals and deflections we get without even knowing that we’re getting them.”
A defense that can continue to pick up steals would help the Wolverines to improve off of a lackluster 2018-19 campaign, during which they allowed 63.6 points per game — 148th in the country.
Freshman center Izabel Varejão exemplifies how length can have an impact on the game, even with limited minutes. Standing at 6-foot-4, she recorded four blocks in just 13 minutes against Bradley. While her height allows her to shut down opposing players in the post, she also has enough quickness and athleticism to defend guards on switches.
At the same time, Michigan’s guards will need to lean on their length and quickness on switches as they face bigger and more athletic teams this season. If the Wolverines can rely on players like Johnson or Dilk to play sound defense against taller forwards, it will take pressure off of their own bigs allow them to comfortably make switches when defending the pick-and-roll.
“We want to be able to … switch one through five,” Johnson said. “A lot of teams aren’t able to do that because their guards are little and they can’t guard a post, or their posts don’t have quick enough feet to guard guards, so I think that’s one thing that our team really has, is the ability to guard one through five on defense.”
The talent is there. This team is fully capable of playing defense at a high level, if they can play smart and use its length.