The Michigan women’s basketball team is coming off its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, and for the second consecutive season, the Wolverines have undergone a significant amount of roster turnover. With Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger graduating and Deja Church transferring, Michigan has three starting spots to fill and 30.6 points per game to replace.
Despite that, the expectations for the Wolverines are as high as they have been in coach Kim Barnes Arico’s eight years with the team, largely due to strong recruiting classes over the past two years. The 2018 class was the most highly-touted of Barnes Arico’s tenure, consisting of three top-100 recruits, two of whom — Amy Dilk and Naz Hillmon — had significant roles as freshmen. This year, Michigan brings in three talented players who have all shown the ability to make an impact as freshmen.
But with roster turnover comes questions about depth. The Wolverines only have five returning players who averaged over five points per game last year — all of whom project as starters — and will look to inexperienced players to fill important roles coming off the bench. Additionally, one of Michigan’s main focuses in the offseason was to improve defensively to alleviate the loss of three of its four leading scorers. The Daily breaks down what to expect from the Wolverines’ starters and who can step up and produce in addition to those five.
Sophomore Amy Dilk is one of Michigan’s two returning starters, and the Wolverines will look to her to be one of the team’s top scorers this season. Dilk came in last season and immediately earned the starting point guard spot. But with many proven scorers on the roster, she was asked to focus more on distributing than scoring the basketball.
While her freshman season had some ups and downs, Dilk showed the ability to be a proficient floor general, averaging 4.4 assists per game with excellent court vision, but turned the ball over 3.4 times per game. Dilk’s ability to score more consistently and improve upon her 7.2 points per game, along with cutting down on turnovers, will be key to Michigan’s success this season.
As a result of losing three starters, senior Akienreh Johnson will consistently start for the Wolverines for the first time in her college career. Johnson’s career has been derailed by injuries a bit — a torn ACL caused her to miss a large portion of her freshman year, and she missed the first three games last season due to a broken hand — but as a senior she will have the opportunity to step up as a leader for Michigan. While not the most prolific scorer on the team, she showed that she can set the tone for the Wolverines offensively in an exhibition against Northwood last Wednesday, scoring seven first-quarter points. Johnson is also one of Michigan’s best defenders, and leads by example on the defensive end.
Behind Johnson and Dilk, it is unclear which of the Wolverines’ four reserve guards will step up and contribute off the bench, and it seems like all four will have the opportunity to earn minutes.
Michigan added two freshman guards to the roster this season, Maddie Nolan and Michelle Sidor, both of whom can contribute immediately. Nolan is coming off a serious knee injury that she suffered during her senior year of high school, but against Northwood, it didn’t seem to affect her play. She could earn minutes due to her aggressiveness, which was on display on Wednesday as she dove on the floor for loose balls and hustled for offensive rebounds. Sidor scored over 3,000 points in high school and can play both the ‘1’ and the ‘2.’ Her tendency to push the pace when running the point could provide Michigan with a change of pace off the bench.
Michigan’s two more experienced reserve guards — sophomore Danielle Rauch and junior Priscilla Smeenge — both played very limited minutes last season. With no clear backup point guard, Rauch made her case for the job after logging six assists in just 16 minutes against Northwood. Barnes Arico identified both Rauch and Smeenge as potential sparks off the bench due to their high-energy style of play.
Coming off the bench in her freshman season, sophomore Naz Hillmon led the Wolverines in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage en route to being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year and being named to the All-Big Ten First Team. This season, Hillmon will be asked to play more minutes and potentially guard opposing centers, a challenge that will require her to improve as a defender.
Due to the departure of many of Michigan’s top scorers, Hillmon will also be the primary option for the Wolverines on offense. She is dominant in the paint, but in order to diversify her game and combat increased defensive attention, Hillmon has worked to improve her perimeter scoring ability. Hillmon is Michigan’s most important player, and whether or not she can improve upon her freshman season will be the an important factor for the Wolverines if they are going to finish at the top of the Big Ten.
Entering her third season as a starter, junior Hailey Brown has the most starting experience of any player on the team. Her ability to score both in the post and on the perimeter makes her a versatile secondary option for Michigan.
The Wolverines’ other senior, Kayla Robbins, will also have the opportunity to start for the first time this season. Her length and strong defense gives her the ability to guard multiple positions and switch, which has allowed Barnes Arico to move her to the wing this season after playing predominantly the ‘4’ throughout her career. Along with Johnson, Robbins will anchor Michigan’s defense.
Depth is a concern, though, as sophomore Emily Kiser will start the season as the Wolverines’ only forward off the bench.
The lone center on Michigan’s roster is freshman Izabel Varejão, whose size can be an important factor for the Wolverines. None of the five starters are true centers, and if they struggle to defend opposing bigs, Varejão will be called on to play an important role. She has also proven that she can provide a scoring punch off the bench due to her effectiveness in the paint and ability to shoot the three, both of which were on display as Michigan’s leading scorer against Northwood. Foul trouble could be an issue for Varejão, but if she can stay on the floor, look for her to potentially play a role similar to Hillmon’s last season.
This year’s Wolverines are relatively young and inexperienced, but a strong starting five and lots of talent up and down the roster provides the team with optimism that they can replicate last season’s success. If Sidor and Varejão can live up to their billing as scoring threats and acclimate well to the college game while the older bench players continue to improve, Michigan has the potential to finish in the top three of the Big Ten and make a third-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. But if the Wolverines can’t find reliable bench contributors, there may be too much weight on the backs of the starters to reach their full potential.