Michigan's first Sweet 16 is a huge step forward for coach Kim Barnes Arico's program. Julia Schachinger/Daily. Buy this photo.

The Michigan women’s basketball team has made history again and again this season.

Whether it was junior forward Naz Hillmon’s 50-point game against Ohio State, the 10-0 start to the season or earning the program-best No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines have continued to exceed expectations.

And now they’ve added to that list by making the Sweet 16 for the first time ever. But this achievement feels a little different for the Wolverines.

“I think it’s just great for our university,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “It’s great for the state of Michigan. It’s great for little kids growing up in Michigan and it’s great for the rest of the country to see that Michigan is not only a football and men’s basketball school — but it’s also a women’s basketball school.”

Just four years ago, in 2017, the Wolverines were celebrating their WNIT championship. At the time, it was another program first. As they hung the banner for that tournament, though, the Wolverines were hungry to keep building.

And they have. 

Michigan was invited to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and 2019, and, after the cancellation of last year’s tournament due to COVID-19, Michigan was ready to get back at it again this season. 

This season has been no outlier in the continued upward climb of the program. Moving on from the Round of 64 with a win against Florida Gulf Coast, Michigan wasn’t done. The Wolverines have continued to rise as showcased in a dominating upset win over No. 3 seed Tennessee.

“Before I came to Michigan, I realized how difficult (reaching a Sweet 16) was,” Barnes Arico said. “Especially when you’re a program that’s building and you don’t have that tradition and you don’t have that history, even to get players to come to your program is incredibly challenging. And I left on St. John’s … because I believed in Michigan, and I believed that we could create something special there.”

And that’s why this marker of success is different. It’s another step in the direction of the history, and tradition, that Barnes Arico has been slowly building in her nine seasons as head coach.

Before Barnes Arico stepped into the position, Michigan struggled through losing seasons and lost tournament bids. Under her guidance, the program has grown tremendously — in recruiting, winning seasons, going deeper in the Big Ten than it ever has before, and most importantly, reaching the NCAA Tournament four times, three of which are in a row.

Reaching the Sweet 16 is an indicator of program success, and this year’s appearance rests on the shoulders of all the great Michigan women’s basketball players that came before this team. As the coaching staff continues to recruit stellar players that buy into Michigan’s hard-working mentality, they’re creating something special.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, but as a coach when you have that special kind of thing, you know it,” Barnes Arico said. “And I knew it at St. John’s when we went to the Sweet 16, and I know it with this group. I was just hoping that someone gave us a chance. And we got our chance, and we did it tonight, so I’m really proud of them.”

Now, just days before Michigan’s first ever Sweet 16 game, it doesn’t matter what happens this weekend. What matters is that the building blocks have been laid — and continually built on top of time and time again. 

This season is not the end.