Fifteen minutes before the Michigan women’s basketball team played Pittsburgh in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Thursday night, a few fans stood up and cheered along with the band as it played “The Victors.” The players warmed up on the floor, and a guy sitting courtside wearing a maize and blue Incredible Hulk fist held up a highlighter yellow sign that read: “Fight 4 every rebound.”
The upper bowl of Crisler Center was curtained off, and empty blue chairs occupied much of the lower bowl. When the fight song ended, you could hear the players encouraging one another from the top rows of the arena.
At first, the scene seems bleak, like just another chapter for a program that has historically experienced more failure than success. Michigan has never made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament or won a Big Ten championship.
But then the game begins.
The Wolverines punch the Panthers in the mouth from the get-go, taking charges and taking names against a team that defeated them by 21 points last season. Michigan leads by 22 points at the half on its way to an 82-45 victory. Freshmen and sophomores score 59 of the Wolverines’ points, and Michigan improves to 7-0, tying its best start in program history.
Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico, in her fourth season in Ann Arbor, is starting to see things take shape. Her first three seasons at the helm of the program saw little roster continuity, but a great deal of overachievement.
She coached a senior-laden team in her first season at Michigan in 2012-13 and led it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines returned only one starter the following year, and Barnes Arico led the makeshift group to 20 wins and a WNIT appearance. Last year, the team was led by a trio of seniors in Nicole Elmblad, Shannon Smith and Cyesha Goree, who had higher expectations. But once again, they won 20 games and made the WNIT.
Now, they’re all gone, too, and Michigan must depend on its youngest players. Freshmen and sophomores have scored 72 percent of the Wolverines’ points this season. With this new core, Barnes Arico believes her building process is truly getting started.
At this point, none of the players on Michigan’s roster have played for a coach in college other than Barnes Arico, and that prospect excites her. She has been preparing to coach this freshman class since she arrived four years ago.
She has watched freshman guard Boogie Brozoski since she was in middle school and freshman guard Nicole Munger since she was 14. Former Michigan coach Kevin Borseth told Barnes Arico she needed to call now-6-foot-5 freshman center Hallie Thome soon after Barnes Arico took the job. The three freshmen were rated in the top 100 in their recruiting class by ESPN, and they all decided to take a risk alongside Barnes Arico.
She made them want to come to Michigan by telling them they could do things that have never been done before, like putting together a run in the NCAA Tournament. That’s what she told star sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty, who was being recruited by top schools all over the country.
Barnes Arico’s plan toward this relevance hinges on one motto, and it has for all four of her years at Michigan: that the Wolverines are the hardest-working team in America.
It sounds like typical coachspeak at first. What coach doesn’t think his or her team is the hardest-working? But then she keeps going.
“So when we say hardest-working team in America, well, how do we judge being the hardest-working team in America?” Barnes Arico said Wednesday. “We can’t just say that. What does that mean? I want proof. We chart practice every day. How many loose balls are you getting in practice? How many charges are you getting in practice? And then we do it in the games.”
For those, Barnes Arico has a sticker system. Each player is awarded stickers that are placed on a block ‘M’ for her performance and how many of the “intangible” things she does during games, like diving on the ground for loose balls and taking charges. Those are frequently the measures Barnes Arico uses to judge her players, not points scored or assists dished out. If a player has only a few stickers, she will hear it from Barnes Arico. How could someone possibly be one of the hardest-working players in America if she has just three stickers?
Barnes Arico knows she can’t yet recruit players as talented as the ones perennial powerhouses Connecticut and Notre Dame are getting, but she’s starting to sign players a step below that level. Multiple recruiting sites rank the recruiting class that will arrive next fall as one of the top 25 classes in the nation.
The plan is progressing on the court, too. Flaherty is averaging 21.3 points per game. Thome starts in the low post for the Wolverines and is the team’s second-leading scorer. Brozoski and Munger are aren’t far behind, each coming off the bench as freshmen and averaging more than eight points per game.
Michigan won its first seven games of this season by at least 17 points, but it knows tougher times are ahead. Sunday, the Wolverines lost to Princeton, a borderline top-25 team, by 17. Four Big Ten teams are currently ranked in the AP Poll, and Iowa is the first team out.
Barnes Arico won’t put a timetable on her plan for Michigan to arrive as a major player on the national scene, but she believes it will happen. She wouldn’t have left St. John’s, where she led the Red Storm to the Sweet 16, if she didn’t hold that belief.
Her goal is to make things happen for Michigan women’s basketball that haven’t happened before. Now that she has all of her own recruits in place, making a run to the Sweet 16 some day down the road in front of a packed Crisler Center doesn’t seem like such a pipe dream.
“And we always talk about that when you get to that point, it’s one game,” Barnes Arico said. “And who knows what could happen?”
What could happen is that maybe, just maybe, if the players who are almost talented enough work harder than everybody else, Michigan could be among the best teams in America.
Barnes Arico wouldn’t mind adding that to her motto.
Cohen can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaxACohen.