Nicole Munger couldn’t have asked for a better start to her Michigan career.
The freshman guard co-led the Wolverines in scoring on Saturday against Binghamton with 19 points, while shooting 7-for-11 from the field. She followed that performance with a five-point, four-rebound outing at Detroit on Sunday.
Now that last year’s go-to scoring option off the bench — sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty — has become a fixture in the starting lineup, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has been searching for the player who can sub in and provide an instant spark. Perhaps sooner than she might have expected, Barnes Arico chose Munger to fill that role.
“I think she is definitely challenging for a starting spot every day,” Barnes Arico said. “But I also really like that you have that spark coming off the bench right now too, which has provided us with a tremendous amount of energy, instant offense and also energy on the defensive end.”
Right from the start of last season, Flaherty shot from all over the court and put up impressive scoring numbers in her first appearances as well, scoring 15 and 14 points in her first two college appearances, respectively. Munger posted a similar average, and has done so playing fewer minutes than Flaherty.
Unlike Munger, Flaherty was forced prematurely into a starting role in her first few games in a Michigan uniform, and that’s a decision Barnes Arico came to regret in the long run. After moving her to the bench, Barnes Arico noticed Flaherty was more comfortable when she got an idea of the pace of the game after observing from the sideline for a few minutes.
The change benefited Flaherty’s confidence and ultimately earned her the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year. Barnes Arico is hoping the same for Munger.
“With freshmen, sometimes it’s kind of a work in progress,” Barnes Arico said. “We realized that with Flaherty last year when she didn’t start, then did start, then she didn’t. It was nice for (Munger in) the first couple minutes to let the game come to her and see what was happening before she got out there, and we’ll see how that goes with Nicole.”
While Munger and Flaherty can both shoot the ball lights-out and serve as the Wolverines’ sixth player, their similarities end there. Flaherty’s game last year was largely based on finesse, and she lacked the dominant, physical presence that Munger has exhibited.
Munger led the Wolverines with three steals against the Bobcats, and full-out dove for loose balls any chance she got this weekend.
“I knew coming in I was going to love the opportunity to coach (Munger) because of how hard she plays and the intangible things she does and how great of a worker she is,” Barnes Arico said. “I just didn’t realize her talent level would be that high right now. She’s a self-made player.”
Munger’s work ethic is her greatest strength at the moment, and what Barnes Arico loves about her the most. The freshman consistently comes early to get some shooting in before practice, and at one point made 30 consecutive 3-pointers, according to Barnes Arico. The coach has had to look outside the team for a comparison about Munger’s desire to get better.
“I’ve watched the guys for three years now come in and how (Michigan men’s basketball senior guard Caris LeVert) comes into the gym at every extra second that he’s had since his freshman year,” Barnes Arico said. “And now I can say that about Nicole. Now, we have someone in our program that’s a Caris LeVert.”
Despite the pressure of lofty comparisons so early in her career, Munger has shown no signs of slowing down. If the freshman can continue to work at the levels that have garnered Barnes Arico’s praise, Michigan could have a special talent on its hands.