The year was 2006.
In the midst of her fourth season as head coach of the St. John’s women’s basketball team, Kim Barnes Arico reached her first NCAA Tournament. She was thrilled just to be there.
The team headed to State College, Pa., for the first weekend of the tournament. Connecticut and its coach, Geno Auriemma, were there, too. At that point, Auriemma already had five championships under his belt. He would be named to the Basketball Hall of Fame later that year.
Though the two teams never faced each other that postseason, the coaches still crossed paths while in the city.
“I said to him, ‘You know, I’m so happy to be here,’ ” Barnes Arico told Inside Michigan Basketball Radio Show. “And he goes, ‘The easiest part is getting there. The hard part is staying there.’ ”
Back then, Barnes Arico didn’t fixate too much on Auriemma’s comments — she simply enjoyed the weekend and appreciated the work it took to get there. After all, Barnes Arico’s achievement marked a successful turnaround. The team hadn’t been to the tournament since 1988, and the season prior to her arrival, the Red Storm finished with an abysmal 3-24 record, losing all of their conference games.
But now in her seventh season at the helm of the Michigan women’s basketball team (21-11 overall, 11-7 Big Ten), Barnes Arico can contextualize Auriemma’s sentiment. On Monday, the Wolverines got a tournament bid for the second straight year — but it hasn’t always been that way.
“Here I am 10, 12 years later, 15 years later, saying, ‘Oh my goodness. To stay there is really, really incredible,’ ” Barnes Arico said. “For our kids to be able to do what they’ve done the last few years is just a credit to them and what they’ve meant to our program and what they’ve brought to our program.”
This realization comes by looking at the program’s history. The team still holds a below .500 record of 605-698, and this season marks just the eighth time the Wolverines have made the tournament. They have yet to make it out of the second round.
Barnes Arico knows the difficulty in taking a team to the tournament year after year. She brought Michigan to the big stage in her first season as head coach, then missed out the following four times. That fourth season, the Wolverines finished third in the Big Ten and had 22 wins going into the Selection Show, but still didn’t make it.
Thus, receiving a bid for the second straight season is quite significant for the program as a whole. There’s still a ways left to go, but it shows valuable progress.
And Barnes Arico makes sure her team doesn’t take it for granted — that they recognize the team’s roots.
“Yeah, they’re kind of getting spoiled,” Barnes Arico said jokingly. “But we talk to them a lot about the past. It’s important to realize where our program was and where our program is now and where our program wants to be. And I think as coaches, we emphasize that a lot and we talk about that a lot.
“ … The players and the coaches that came before, they know really what it took to get to where we are now. And step-by-step, brick-by-brick to build this, and to build really a program and not a team.”