On Thursday, the No. 11 Michigan women’s basketball team will kick off its season in an exhibition game against Grand Valley State. The Daily breaks down three things to look for in the game.
Filling starting lineup roles
Presumably, second-team All American senior guard Naz Hillmon will start alongside senior wing Leigha Brown and senior guard Amy Dilk. But after the graduation of starting forward Hailey Brown and starting guard Akeinreh Johnson, the Wolverines have some gaps to fill. Filling Hailey Brown’s role both in the post and as the leading 3-point shooter on the team will be a challenge. Similarly, Johnson’s defensive expertise will be missed.
To fill Johnson’s role, Michigan will likely rely on junior guard Maddie Nolan. Nolan saw an increase in minutes last season due to her defensive tenacity and scrappy style of play. She’ll also shoulder the role of 3-point shooting that Hailey Brown held. As a threat on the wing, Nolan figures to complement Leigha Brown’s driving style offense, creating space on the outside.
“We have one of those (role) players in Maddie Nolan, she’s arguably the toughest kid on the team and she can do a little bit of everything,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “And she does whatever we need on that night to help our team be successful.”
In Hailey Brown’s role, Michigan will likely go with senior forward Emily Kiser. Last season, playing behind Hailey Brown and Hillmon, Kiser was a role player, providing valuable minutes in nearly every game. This season, Kiser may become a duo down low with Hillmon. Having another forward in the mix also frees up Hillmon from always guarding other teams’ post players and gives more length to the bottom of a zone match-up.
The Wolverines also have their only true center back this season — junior center Izabel Varejão. After spending last season outside the country due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Michigan is ready to have their center back. Varejão will likely rotate into the mix to keep Hillmon and Kiser fresh, much like she did her freshman season.
The Wolverines boast four new freshmen this year, including two four-star recruits: wing Laila Phelia and guard Ari Wiggins. With such a strong senior class and depth at each position, the freshmen aren’t likely to see much playing time yet, but exhibition games are a good time for them to get their feet wet.
Phelia on the wing can score at all three levels and is a scrappy defender. Wiggins, in the point guard position, brings unbeatable speed to the team on both offense and defense. She’s also a lefty, throwing a wrinkle into how teams defend her.
“Being able to have the freshman here right away with us and just them being able to see how we are as a team, that’s been a really great transition into practice,” sophomore wing Elise Stuck said.
After a tough conference-only schedule last year, Michigan’s sophomore class didn’t see much playing time, but that could change during Thursday’s match-up. With more practice under their belts, the sophomore class will provide depth in all positions.
New assistant coaching staff
On the sidelines this year, the Wolverines have a brand-new assistant coaching staff. There has been an assistant coaching change in three of the last four years. The assistant coach for the forwards has had the most turnover with three forward-specific coaches in the past four years. Despite the overhaul, Michigan’s players have always benefited from a new perspective. Carrie Moore is the new post coach, Val Nainima is the new point guard coach and Harry Rafferty — a former graduate assistant — is the new wing coach.
“I feel like I’ve taken a little bit of something from each (coach), and I’m excited to work with coach Moore and just get a third opinion or skill set from a different person,” Hillmon said. “They just bring a different view. It’s important to look sometimes from the outside in, and they bring that perspective to us.”
While Thursday’s game is an exhibition, it’s the first time the Wolverines will play a non-conference game (excluding the NCAA Tournament) in over a year. Early season non-conference games are an integral part of the team-building process, for both new players and coaches — one Michigan will likely take advantage of.