The Michigan women’s basketball team finally got what it wanted. During Monday night’s Selection Show, the Wolverines were chosen as a seven seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The tournament bid called for a moment of celebration for the team. The last time Michigan (10-6 Big Ten, 22-9 overall) made it to the tourney was 2013, during Kim Barnes Arico’s first season as head coach. The Wolverines defeated Villanova and made it to the second round, but their run ended when they fell to Stanford, 73-40.
Since then, though, Michigan hasn’t had the same post-season luck. The Wolverines have come close to getting bids on multiple occasions. Last year, they finished third in the Big Ten and racked up 22 victories by the time the Selection Show rolled around, yet were shocked to find out their efforts weren’t enough. Instead, they went on to win the WNIT Championship.
Because of last year’s disappointment, guard Katelynn Flaherty and forward Jillian Dunston entered their senior years having never played in the tournament.
Flaherty, the school’s all-time leading scorer — man or woman — and Dunston, the team’s defensive backbone and leader, have never played under the big spotlight. That’s why this year’s opportunity is all the more important to them.
“Thrilled for our seniors and for our program,” Barnes Arico said following the Selection Show. “Katelynn and Jillian deserve to be watched on the national screen. … Just happy that they will have an opportunity to represent the University of Michigan and the ‘Block M’ before they graduate.”
Given all that’s happening, it’s hard not to fixate on what is to come over the next week. On Friday, Flaherty and Dunston will live out their dreams when Michigan takes on No. 10 seed Northern Colorado (26-6) in Waco, Tex.
As the tournament approaches, though, the end of the season still looms overhead. At any moment they could lose and it’s all over. With that said, one can’t help but wonder — what happens next year?
With Flaherty and Dunston gone, the Wolverines will have big shoes to fill. Junior guard Nicole Munger and junior center Hallie Thome both return and will likely play a more prominent role. The duo has started in every game this season and has played an integral part in the team’s success, averaging 9.4 and 17 points, respectively.
Munger’s offensive contributions will be essential next season. She is shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc, which will need to be put on full display next year to help make up for Flaherty’s departure. With Flaherty gone, the offense may also shift toward post play by giving the ball to Thome more.
Freshman forward Hailey Brown and freshman guard Deja Church are also returning. Brown was a starter until suffering an injury in February against Michigan State. But when healthy, she was an impact player. As the season progressed, Brown got into her groove and shot at least 50 percent from the field six games in a row. Her recovery and return to the court next season will be vital to her team’s well-being.
Church should see more minutes as well. Prior to becoming a starter due to Brown’s injury, Church was Michigan’s first player off the bench and often gave the team a much-needed spark. She will likely need to replace Flaherty at point.
Sophomore forward Kayla Robbins and sophomore guard Akienreh Johnson have potential to work their way into the starting lineup, too. Johnson significantly improved late in the season — when Brown went down — and notched 19, 17 and 13 points against Minnesota, Maryland and Penn State, respectively.
The roster is expected to expand next season as well, with five freshmen set to join the squad.
Five-star guard Amy Dilk is Michigan’s top recruit. The Carmel, Ind. native is ranked No. 39 in her class by ESPN. She’s a talented ball-handler and scorer, so if the transition to the college game goes smoothly, she could help fill in Flaherty’s spot.
“She has an unbelievable IQ for the game and can see things happening two steps ahead of anyone else,” Barnes Arico told MGoBlue on Nov. 8. “She is a true point guard with tremendous size that we have not had at the position before. She has the ability to see over smaller guards and to really make everyone around her better.
“She can score in so many ways — off the bounce, from the three-point line. She runs her team and has a great feel for the game. She has played for a great high school program, and we have watched her develop throughout the years into one of the top point guards in the country. She is going to have an immediate impact on this program.”
Four-star recruits in forwards Naz Hillmon, Emily Kiser and guard Ariel Young and three-star guard Danielle Rauch will also look to contribute.
Though it will be challenging to make up for losing Flaherty and Dunston, the pieces to the puzzle are there. And if Barnes Arico can put them together effectively, then she may be able to build another tournament bid.