After making it to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history last season, the No. 25 Michigan women’s basketball team insists that it’s back for more.
Outside of the program though, there are many who question whether or not that’s possible.
“Heading into the offseason, we finished as, I guess, the sixth-best team in the country,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said Tuesday at Michigan Media Day. “And then in some of the preseason rankings, we weren’t even mentioned or were mentioned near the bottom. So there’s a big drop.”
There’s logic to that drop. With the departure of Naz Hillmon to the WNBA, the Wolverines lost a two-time All-American and last season’s leading scorer and rebounder. Replacing the production and post presence of Hillmon is an impossible task — one Michigan won’t attempt to do.
However, the Wolverines return their next four leading scorers. Because of those returning players, and because Barnes Arico prides herself on building a program and not just a team, Michigan is turning that lack of consideration into motivation.
It’s a different team. It’s a team that is embracing both the changes and the feeling of being overlooked.
“A lot of us actually almost thrive in that underdog role,” senior guard Maddie Nolan said. “… I prefer almost to be in that underdog role, you know, no one’s expecting anything out of us. And so I think that’s almost more exciting than being ranked in the top 10 honestly.”
This sentiment echoed throughout the team. Upperclassmen or underclassmen, guard or forward, player or coach, everyone feels the same way:
“I like to be an underdog,” junior forward Whitney Sollom said. “I like to be able to shock people.”
The Wolverines enjoy playing with a chip on their shoulder, finding motivation from proving people outside of the program wrong. But there’s a reason they have something to prove. Their primary spark graduated at the end of last season. However, the team is focused on turning that doubt into their drive.
“We work best when all the odds are against us,” sophomore guard Ari Wiggins said. “And I feel like we thrive off of the doubt from people on the outside, but we have so much confidence in ourselves that that kind of just lifts us up back to the top.”
It’s not like Michigan is considered a bad team by any standard. The Wolverines are ranked No. 25 in the AP preseason poll, and No. 5 in the Big Ten Coaches Poll. But that’s not enough to satisfy the team.
Instead of being bothered by the low ranking, Michigan is focused on turning it into motivation. The Wolverines don’t just think they can match last season’s production. They think they can exceed it.
“Last year we made (the Sweet Sixteen) again and then ultimately the Elite Eight, making history again,” Sollom said. “We want to be able to do that again this year, but also make it to the Final Four, and that’s really important to us.”
The team is filled with upperclassmen. Eleven of the 15 players on the roster were part of last year’s Elite Eight run, and Michigan hopes that its experience can propel it. The team has been in a position to make history in the past two postseasons, and it did.
The Wolverines are confident they can make history again this year. But if they’re going to do so and disprove the doubters, they’re going to need to harness that confidence. Without Hillmon, Michigan won’t be able to turn to the player who has been its go-to in critical situations the past few years. When the team is looking for points or a momentum-shifting play, players will have to be confident that they can find it somewhere else.
The Wolverines’ upward trajectory from the past few years was, in large part, driven by Hillmon. But that hasn’t stopped anyone on the team from setting high goals for this year.
“A big goal that the team shares is a Big Ten Championship, going to the Final Four,” Wiggins said.
That’s a daunting task, especially in women’s basketball, a field typically dominated by a select few teams year after year. But since Barnes Arico’s arrival on campus 10 years ago, Michigan has been climbing. The team hopes it can continue that climb, but it certainly won’t be an easy feat.
The Wolverines feel they have a lot to prove this year, and for good reason. But Michigan is confident, and if it can carry that confidence throughout the season, then maybe the Wolverines will achieve what they’re setting out to do.