Everything will have to go perfectly if the Michigan women’s basketball team wants to capture a national championship in the NCAA tournament.
The field is tough enough already, as the 64 best teams from across the country gather in San Antonio, Texas, to compete. Michigan is in the River Walk Region of the bracket which includes powerhouses like No. 1 seed University of Connecticut, whose freshman superstar Paige Bueckers is leading headlines and averaging 19.7 points per game, and No. 2 seed Baylor.
The Wolverines are the No. 6 seed, meaning they’ll play their first game against eleventh-seeded Florida Gulf Coast. If they win their first game, they’ll be two games away from potentially playing Baylor.
As such, if Michigan wants to advance past the Sweet 16 and into the Elite Eight, it will most likely have to beat Baylor, one of the most consistent teams in the country.
The Wolverines will have no margin for error if they want to make a deep run in the tournament, and there are two areas that will either make or break Michigan’s run: experienced players and offensive transgressions.
The Wolverines have a lot of depth on the roster, and they have a stacked depth chart when it comes to players with experience. The problem is that the experienced players haven’t been stepping up enough for the team to win.
Graduate guard Akienreh Johnson and senior forward Hailey Brown are two of the most experienced players on the team, but they’ve struggled as of late.
More notable is Johnson, who has not returned to the shooting form shown before Michigan’s two-week pause. She’s shooting 37.1% from the field overall, but in her last two games Johnson has gone 2-for-18 on shots when you exclude free throws. It’s strange to see the experienced player, who’s averaging 10.8 points per game, struggle so mightily with shots on the floor. Johnson still has her defensive merits, but her shooting needs to improve.
Brown, another very experienced player and defensive stalwart, shot 3-for-6 in the last two games. Her percentage looks better than Johnson’s, but she’s simply not taking enough shots. While Brown may envision herself as more of a facilitator of the offense, she is shooting 32.9% from behind the arc, making her one of Michigan’s more accurate 3-point shooters.
And while the Wolverines are not a 3-point shooting team, the added dimension of the offense is necessary for a deep tournament push.
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said of the team’s general shooting efforts: “We were settling especially when we got tight and not playing for the best shot but for the first shot.”
Johnson and Brown need to experience renewed success during the tournament if they want to see their team advance to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
A theme that emerged in the second half of the season was foul issues for Michigan. Against Indiana, Michigan State and Northwestern, the Wolverines had noticeable problems with fouls, sometimes to the point where key starters like junior forward Naz Hillmon had to sit on the bench in the first quarter.
Fouls are tricky for Michigan to deal with, because they play a close-quarter, physical and aggressive type of basketball. Not being a huge 3-point shooting team, the Wolverines opt to dominate in the paint with Hillmon, Johnson and Hailey Brown, a trio that uses their large frames and aggression to stop drives and box out defenders. The three of them are a large reason for Michigan’s plus-11.6 rebounding margin per game.
When those players get into foul trouble it becomes much harder to control the paint. Fouls also lead to offensive stagnation for the Wolverines, something they cannot afford to have in the NCAA Tournament.
Besides fouls, turnovers are another issue that Michigan will have to actively take stock of. The Wolverines are averaging 15.9 turnovers per game, ranking 11th in the Big Ten. While they force their fair share of turnovers — their average turnover margin is only minus-2.6 and is inflated by games such as a 21-turnover performance against Maryland — they still turn the ball over too much. It becomes much more difficult to put points up on the board when the ball is being handed over to the other team.
The offensive inefficiencies must be corrected and the experienced players on the team need to step up for Michigan if it wants to make a deep run in the tournament. The stakes are still high, and the Wolverines cannot drop the ball for a single possession if they want to cap off their already historic season with a solid tournament run.