Before every season, two things are always on the mind of the Michigan women’s basketball team: the next steps and the expectations.
Six years ago, the next step was simply to get better, to go further than the third round of the WNIT. Three years ago, the Wolverines were given the cold shoulder by the NCAA selection committee – and they won the WNIT instead. The next year, they made the tournament for the first time in four years.
Now, for the first time in the program’s history, Michigan is looking for its third straight NCAA Tournament bid. For the first time in the programs history, the Wolverines are shooting for the Sweet Sixteen – or higher.
The next steps are steeper than ever. The expectations are taller than ever.
“It kind of goes with one of the reasons why I chose Michigan,” said junior forward Hailey Brown. “I chose here to come to a school that we’re working towards something. We haven’t won a conference championship. My group hasn’t made it to the Sweet Sixteen. So that’s something we’re trying to do, each year do better. I think this year I’m just really excited, looking forward to accomplishing these things and really pushing through the grind with these girls.
Unlike other sports, though, it’s not all in Michigan’s hands. Women’s college basketball is incredibly top-heavy, and when playing on the opponents’ courts on the first weekend of the tournament, it’s nearly impossible to advance. The last two years, the Wolverines have been bounced by a two and one seed, respectively.
“In women’s basketball, so much is predicated on your seed,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “And getting that seed where you’re going to play a one or two in the first round on their home court is really tough. We’ve got to get ourselves out of those positions. … So the goal for this year’s team is to keep advancing, keep moving forward.”
In the preseason poll, Michigan was picked to come in second in the Big Ten by the media, behind frontrunners Maryland. Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon was one of two players selected preseason all-Big Ten by both the media and coaches.
The star sophomore class is a year older, and Barnes Arico keeps bringing in top-notched recruits. The players aren’t as timid as their coach about this season.
“We definitely want the Big Ten championships, we want to go there,” Brown said. “I think last year we had a tough one against Maryland when we lost in the Big Ten tournament. I think every year we’re just trying to build and build, and we’ve done that. I’m a junior now, my third year, so we’re trying to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen this year. We need to get a Big Ten Championship, for sure.”
For the Wolverines, improvement has been the sole focus under Barnes Arico. Every year, the team’s made a step forward, but this year, reaching the next level is harder than ever.