Michigan women’s basketball’s roster is set up to be one of the best in the conference, with four of its five starters from last season returning, only losing Kayla Robbins to graduation.

The Wolverines’ increased experience brings increased expectations. In Kim Barnes Arico’s ninth year as coach, Michigan returns the dynamic duo of juniors Naz Hillmon and Amy Dilk. Akienreh Johnson will return as a fifth-year senior and Hailey Brown will return as the only true senior.

Maddie Nolan, Michelle Sidor and Danielle Rauch will all look for increased playing time after being some of the first players off the bench last season. Alongside the returning players, the Wolverines added four new freshmen to the roster and junior Nebraska transfer wing Leigha Brown. 

Michigan isn’t lacking in depth this season. Still, filling the only open starting role will prove challenging for Barnes Arico in the best possible way — there are several options to fill the role. The Daily breaks down what to expect from the Wolverines’ four returning starters, who can fill the fifth spot, and who can step and produce off the bench.

Guards

Last season, Dilk proved capable of both commanding the offense and producing points in the point guard position. She started in all 32 games last season and averaged 11.6 points per game, while also leading the team with 145 assists. 

Dilk sometimes struggled with turnovers, something she’s worked to reduce since her freshman year. Last season, she had 113, averaging 3.5 per game. Cutting down on turnovers while creating point-producing offensive situations will be key to Michigan’s offensive success.

Also returning with Dilk is fifth-year senior Akienreh Johnson. She was granted eligibility by the NCAA after appealing for an extra year based on a freshman-year injury. In her first season as a starter last year, she stayed healthy and averaged 10.3 points per game. Johnson isn’t the most prolific scorer on the team, but is their best defender, bringing advantages to both ends of the floor.

Behind Dilk and Johnson, the third starting guard remains unknown. Sophomore Maddie Nolan made a case for the spot last season, stepping up after multiple Michigan injuries. Like Johnson, Nolan won’t be a leading scorer for the Wolverines, but she’s a scrappy player willing to battle for loose balls and rebounds. She saw a significant increase in playing time throughout last season, even starting the final 11 games after a breakout game against Purdue. 

A new candidate for the role is transfer Leigha Brown. Last season, Brown led Nebraska in scoring, averaging 14.4 points per game and won the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year award last season. She can also shoot the three, something the Wolverines need to add to their repertoire this season after only averaging 4.8 3-pointers per game last season. A 6-foot-4 wing, Brown adds a new layer of depth to the guard position. She can help Naz Hillmon out in the post with her height or step back around the arc and shoot the three, with a 34.1% mark at Nebraska last year. She’s a versatile player that could pose to be another of Michigan’s greatest offensive threats.

The other two options are junior Danielle Rauch and sophomore Michelle Sidor. Rauch didn’t see much playing time in her underclassman years, but is expected to gain more minutes this year. She suffered from a hand injury last season after earning a starting spot, forcing her to miss four weeks of action.

Sidor plays a unique position at both the ‘1’ and the ‘2’. She subbed for Dilk most often last season, but struggled to find a consistent spot in the offense. She has a strong three-point shot that, if consistent, could make it hard to keep her out of the lineup.

Two freshmen — Megan Fiso and Elise Stuck — make up the rest of the guards on the roster. Both are highly touted recruits for Michigan, but neither will likely see much playing time this season with so many other guards ahead of them. Like Leigha Brown, Stuck will play on the wing. Fiso and Stuck will bring more depth to the position.

Forwards

The most notable forward is Michigan’s consensus best player, junior Naz Hillmon. Placed on 187 preseason watchlists, including the Naismith Trophy, Hillmon is the driving force behind their Wolverines’ offense. Last season she averaged 17.4 points per game and started in all 32 games — all en route to being named to the All-Big Ten first team for the second year in a row. Hillmon spent the offseason working on her mid-range shot. If she can mesh with the rest of the offense and maintain her dominating presence around the rim, the sky’s the limit for Hillmon and Michigan.

The final returning starter for the Wolverines is senior Hailey Brown. Brown is Michigan’s best 3-point shooter at36.6% from behind the arc last season. She also led the team in 3-pointers at 56 and is a fourth-year starter. Brown compliments Hillmon well in the post, while still being able to step out behind the arc and shoot the three. On the defensive end, she’s an aggressive defender, garnering 29 blocks and 20 steals last season.

Reserve forward Emily Kiser didn’t see much of the floor last season, appearing in 29 games off the bench, but only averaging 8.5 minutes per game. Despite her limited role last season, Barnes Arico has highlighted her as another standout player in practice. Kiser played on an AAU team with Dilk in high school, and if the two can rekindle their on-court relationship, Kiser could play an increased role in her junior year. She is currently facing an ankle injury, which her playing time could be contingent upon.

Other notable forwards are freshmen Whitney Sollom and Cameron Williams, who came in as the Wolverines’ best 2020 recruit, ranked No. 30 by ESPN HoopGurlz. With Hillmon and Hailey Brown in the starting forward spots, the freshmen will likely see limited playing time, though Williams may see more than her classmate. Despite this, Barnes Arico has said that they’re eager to learn from both and will be valuable bench players.

Center

The lone center on Michigan’s roster is sophomore Izabel Varejão. None of the other four starters are true centers, which could prove difficult on the defensive end. Her rebounding and blocking ability keeps driving guards out of the low post. Last season she appeared in all 32 games and averaged 14.2 minutes per game. If she can increase her potential as an offensive threat, she could see increased playing time ahead of other forwards. Currently, though, Varejão is stuck in Brazil after going home during lockdown in the spring. The status of her return is unclear.

“She’s not here yet,” Barnes Arico said in an appearance on WTKA Tuesday. “We’re working on getting her back from Brazil.”

Without a center on Wednesday, we could see a combo of smaller forwards in the lineup. With Hillmon in the low post, adding a small forward could help defensively against an opposing center. Leigha Brown or Kiser could be charged with the task. As for height, Sollom and Williams have it, which despite their young ages, could get them some looks.

Outlook

This looks to be the deepest, most experienced roster Barnes Arico has had in her nine years at Michigan. Returning four starters, and having so many capable players to fill the open spot gives Barnes Arico multiple options to pencil into the lineup. If Hillmon and Dilk continue to perform at the level they’ve shown capable of, and bench players like Rauch, Nolan and Sidor can step up, the Wolverines have the potential to place in the top three in the Big Ten and return to the NCAA tournament for the third straight year.

 

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