After Michigan’s third-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance — and its first Sweet Sixteen appearance ever — the 11th-ranked Wolverines seem poised for another successful campaign. Coach Kim Barnes Arico will be returning three of last season’s starters for their senior campaigns: forward Naz Hillmon, wing Leigha Brown and guard Amy Dilk.
This leaves two starting spots that need to be filled. After graduating Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown 一 who averaged a combined 18.9 points per game last season 一 the Wolverines have gaps in both the frontcourt and the backcourt that must be filled. Johnson and Brown were both major contributors on the defensive end as well. Brown led the team in blocks (19) by a wide margin, and Johnson averaged just under a steal a game. Their presences will be missed, but Michigan has a strong supporting class returning and four new freshmen joining the team as well.
With the Wolverines facing a loaded Big Ten conference and what could possibly be the toughest non-conference schedule in program history, they will rely heavily on the experience prevalent on this year’s roster.
Dilk is a lock to start at the point guard position. She averaged a team-high 3.9 assists last season, but her numbers regressed slightly from the year prior. She looked aggressive and confident against Grand Valley State in an exhibition game last Thursday, though, so if this confidence continues into the regular season, Dilk can take a major step forward.
Leigha Brown is expected to return to her starting role as well. Despite missing a large chunk of the season due to COVID-19, Brown proved to be a dynamic scorer last season, averaging 18.2 points per game while shooting 52.3% from the field. Brown will have to carry a substantial portion of the scoring load for Michigan to succeed.
Junior Maddie Nolan is the most suitable replacement for the void that Johnson’s departure leaves in the Wolverine backcourt. Nolan is a tenacious and aggressive defender, as seen by her 21 steals last season, but she’s also an effective shooter, shooting 36.2% from behind the arc last year. She doesn’t need the ball in her hands to be effective on offense, and this could allow her to fit well alongside Dilk, Hillmon and Brown.
Rounding out the guards on the roster are senior Danielle Rauch and junior Michelle Sidor, as well as freshmen Laila Phelia, Ari Wiggins and Jordan Hobbes. Sidor brings 3-point scoring to the lineup. After making three of her four attempts against Grand Valley, she should surpass her efficiency last season 一 a meager 27.6% from behind the arc. Rauch brings a level-head and leadership to the table as one of the most experienced players on the roster.
“You need great pieces, and you need players that are unselfish and want to do anything that they can to help the team be successful,” Barnes Arico said. “We have one of those players in Danielle Rauch”.
The three incoming freshmen guards might not see the floor often this year, but they all bring useful tools to the table. Phelia is a winner, having won two Ohio State Championships in high school. This winning mindset will fall in line nicely with this year’s seniors, who are hunting for a Big Ten Championship. Wiggins, meanwhile, brings a new speed to the Wolverines. She’s lightning fast, and this could provide a change of pace for the Wolverines if needed. Hobbes was not as highly ranked as Phelia or Wiggins, but she is an intriguing young player. A guard with her length is an oddity in the college game, and she could develop into an elite defender given more time to grow.
Leading Michigan from the frontcourt is none other than Hillmon. She spent last season terrorizing Big Ten defenses on her way to earning the conference’s Player of the Year honors. Hillmon is the focal point of the Wolverines offense and the scary thing is that she could be even better this season. Hillmon drained two threes in Thursday’s exhibition after not attempting one all last season. If this can carry over to the regular season, it would be far from surprising to see her repeat as Big Ten Player of the Year.
With Brown’s departure, one of last year’s role players is going to have to make a major leap. Senior Emily Kiser is one of the most likely candidates to slide into the remaining starting spot. She averaged 2.4 points per game and 2.6 rebounds per game in just 12.3 minutes per game last season. Asking Kiser to step into a starting position is a lot of pressure, but she is a senior and has been around the program for quite some time now. She knows Barnes Arico’s system, and this should be useful for her jumping into a bigger role.
“We have one of those players in Emily Kiser, who has always kind of been a little bit of a back-up to Naz,” Barnes Arico said. “This year she has to step into a different position. She can shoot the ball exceptionally well, and maybe face up and spread the floor a little bit for Naz.”
Rounding out the forward rotation are sophomores Cameron Williams, Whitney Sollomand Elise Stuck, as well as freshman Taylor Gibson. Williams, Sollom and Stuck were not real contributors on last year’s team 一 each averaged less than two points per game. But, with a lack of forward depth, it will be interesting to see how Barnes Arico handles this situation. Also, Gibson is not expected to contribute instantly for this Michigan roster, but brings a winning mentality. In her junior year of high school, she helped Bishop McNamara to a No. 1 ranking from the Washington Post. Whether the backup forward position is a combination of these four, or one of them stands out from the others, remains to be seen.
The lone center for the Wolverines is junior Izabel Varejão. Due to COVID-19, Varejão was not able to practice or play with the team for the entirety of last season. In her freshman season, Varejão provided a scoring spark off the bench, averaging 5.4 points per game in just 14.2 minutes. In her minutes with Hillmon that year, the high-low could pick apart opposing defenses. Now that she’s back, though, her role is yet to be determined. Against Grand Valley, Varejão did not see the floor often and Barnes Arico mentioned she still had work to do to get back into the rotation. She could be a situational player for Michigan and if Hillmon is having a hard time guarding opposing centers, Varejão could see the floor more often.
The Wolverines are experienced and hungry. Returning five seniors and three starters means that leadership should not be a problem. If Hillmon and Brown can continue their offensive work from last season, and Dilk can improve on a down year, this Michigan team should have no problem putting up points. If role players can fill the defensive voids left by Johnson and Brown, the Wolverines are in good shape and could solidify their status as Big Ten Title contenders. But, if these holes can’t be filled by the likes of Nolan, Kiser and company, Michigan might not be able to meet the lofty expectations that have been set for them.