It definitely felt odd.
Last week, the Michigan women’s basketball team defeated Findlay in an exhibition. And for the first game in a long time, the name Katelynn Flaherty wasn’t announced emphatically, over and over again throughout Crisler Center.
But as odd as it was, it might not be a bad thing.
Entering this season, there’s been ample talk about how and if the Wolverines will be able to replace Flaherty, who graduated last spring. Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico brought this to light just a few minutes into the team’s Oct. 10 media day.
“I’m sure the question of the day will be, you know, where do we go without Katelynn Flaherty?” Barnes Arico said. “And how is our team going to look without the program’s all-time leading scorer?”
It’s an understandable question to have. After all, Flaherty led the Wolverines in scoring the last four years. She was a true playmaker and certainly wrote a chapter of the school’s history.
Players like Flaherty rarely come around, and to be frank, the Wolverines don’t have what it takes to replace her right now. Yes, they have a talented point guard in freshman Amy Dilk, who’s ready to contribute right away. And while she may develop into a dominant, Flaherty-esque player down the line, right now she’s only a freshman. Thus, it’s naive to expect her to be Michigan’s savior this season.
But maybe the Wolverines don’t need a savior; maybe they don’t need to replace Flaherty. In fact, I’d argue that they shouldn’t try to replace her.
Even with Flaherty — and all of her dominance — the program only qualified for the NCAA Tournament once in the last four years, just to get trampled in the second round by then-No. 2-seed Baylor.
Now I’m not saying that the team accomplished nothing with its star player, because it certainly found success. Two seasons ago, Michigan won the Women’s National Invitation Tournament and hung its first banner. The team frequently spends time in the top-25 rankings. Last season, it even notched signature wins against then-No. 8 Ohio State and then-No. 13 Maryland.
However, let’s not forget about the bludgeonings this team took against top teams last season. Against then-No. 5 Louisville, Michigan went into halftime with a five-point lead only to lose by 25. The Wolverines had no answer for then-No. 3 Notre Dame — who went on to win the National Championship — or Baylor either, and suffered similar fates.
Let’s not forget Michigan held a 16-point lead against an average Purdue team, only to lose in overtime, and how the loss spurred a bad stretch in which the Wolverines lost four out of five games. Although they did end up making the NCAA Tournament, that slump significantly jeopardized the team’s chances at the time.
And let’s not forget the Big Ten Tournament disappointment, when the Wolverines got bounced in their second contest by Nebraska. Yes, the Cornhuskers were a better seed, but it was a game Barnes Arico’s squad could have and should have won.
All this is to point out that even in Flaherty’s senior year, the program was far from perfect. That shouldn’t be the standard. That shouldn’t be Michigan’s ceiling.
This program still has far more to accomplish. It has yet to truly establish itself as a national contender — as a force to reckon with.
But now, the Wolverines have the tools to do so.
A quick glance at the roster is all one needs to recognize the potential of this program. Michigan has seniors Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger — a duo that has already proved itself and will be key this season.
Then there are players such as junior Akienreh Johnson as well as sophomores Hailey Brown and Deja Church. They all flashed glimpses of their talent at various points last season and could make big strides moving forward.
But to top it off, Michigan has one heck of a freshmen class — on paper at least. Composed of a five-star recruit in Dilk — as well as three four-stars and a three-star — the group was ranked No. 12 by ESPN. It’s the program’s all-time best recruiting class.
Lack of depth has been an issue in the past, because when a team only has a small rotation, the season becomes more physically demanding and takes its toll. It’s one reason the Wolverines often face the end-of-season slump.
But depth shouldn’t be an issue this year.
“I think the thing that we have, that we haven’t had since I’ve been here,” Barnes Arico said, “is a tremendous amount of depth.”
Fans can’t blame Michigan’s offense too much for revolving around Flaherty the last four years. When a team has top-caliber talent, it has to use it to its advantage.
That said, an offense becomes predictable when it uses only one weapon. This season, while many players have potential to contribute, none are set to garner all the attention like Flaherty did. Thus the Wolverines can use a more diverse attack, which may fare better against opponents.
“Definitely missing Katelynn is a huge — I don’t know what to call it — but it creates a huge deficit for the points. I mean, she averaged a lot and she contributed a lot to our scoring,” Brown said after practice on Oct. 22. “But with our team, I think now the floor will be open more because we have more people that are scorers.”
There’s a saying that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’d like to create my own saying: if it ain’t perfect, don’t replace it.
The mindset for this team should not be about replacing Flaherty; that’s too tall of a task, and the team wasn’t flawless with her.
Instead, the program’s focus should be about taking the next big step and competing with the powerhouses.
And with a roster filled with potential, Barnes Arico has the threads to strengthen the underlying fabric of the program and take it to the next level.