The Michigan women’s basketball team (4-7 Big Ten, 12-10 overall) needs to rebound — both metaphorically and literally.
After the Wolverines were handed their worst loss of the season on Wednesday — a 21-point defeat against No. 17 Michigan State — they have potentially their easiest chance to bounce back.
Sunday, Michigan hosts Illinois (1-10 Big Ten, 8-14 overall), the lowest-ranked team in the Big Ten.
It’s likely that neither team will make the NCAA Tournament, but the game has postseason implications nonetheless.
The Big Ten Tournament begins in less than a month, and the four worst teams in the conference face each other in play-in games to start the bracket. Depending on the outcomes of other games, a loss for Michigan this weekend could drop the team one spot down into the bottom four.
Michigan wants the highest seed it can get when it arrives in Indianapolis on Mar. 2. With just seven games left, including road games against No. 5 Maryland and Purdue — a team that scraped past Michigan by two points Dec. 30 — it will be tough for the Wolverines to get any higher than the No. 5 or 6 spot.
But if Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has a plan up her sleeve, it will start with rebounding this weekend against Illinois.
Against a strong Michigan State frontcourt, Michigan suffered on the glass and lost the rebound battle, 38-23.
In conference play, Michigan is 0-5 when it loses the rebounding battle. For the most part, the Wolverines have been neck and neck on the glass — averaging 35.5 rebounds, just half a rebound fewer than their opponents.
Michigan can’t afford to get blown out on the glass, which was evident in the game against the Spartans, but Illinois doesn’t have the same quality that Michigan State possessed.
The Fighting Illini are on a five-game skid, bear the worst record in the Big Ten and are averaging double-digit losses against conference opponents.
Illinois’s worst loss of the season came Jan. 7, losing by 31 points to the Golden Gophers, a team the Wolverines beat twice this season.
The Illini’s match for Michigan freshman center Hallie Thome will be center Chatrice White. At 6-foot-3, White doesn’t have the height advantage over Michigan’s star freshman, who measures at 6-foot-5. Thome averages 14 points and 5.8 rebounds.
Michigan’s advantage, though, comes from its guards. Standout sophomore Katelynn Flaherty, who averages 22.3 points and 2.3 assists, continues to impress despite the struggles evident in her supporting cast.
Flaherty scored 18 points against the Spartans, reaching double digits for the 21st time this season. Besides Flaherty, freshman guard Boogie Brozoski put up 13 points off the bench, but not much else went right on offense in East Lansing.
“We got tight, and we just tried to get the ball to (Flaherty),” Barnes Arico said. “Instead of multiple people trying to do things for our team, their pressure really got to us.”
Flaherty won’t have as tough an opponent against Illinois, and it’s not unreasonable to think she could go for at least 20 points, but how the rest of the team steps up could be the deciding factor.