MINNEAPOLIS — After reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in program history, the Michigan women’s basketball team faces high expectations in its upcoming season. And this year, the Wolverines have the opportunity to prove that last season was not the peak, but rather the standard, for this program.
But Michigan will be tasked in doing so without Naz Hillmon, the team’s leader and top scorer last season. With Hillmon graduating and taking her talents to the WNBA, the Wolverines confront a tough task in filling the hole she left.
“I mean, we’re not stupid, Naz Hillmon might be one of the grestest players we’ll ever get to play with,” graduate forward Emily Kiser said Wednesday at Big Ten Media Days. “… I think the big part of it is we will be a different team. Naz left, yes, but we can find our own identity as a team and I think that’s something we’re looking forward to.”
As Michigan moves forward and starts to shape its new identity, the Wolverines retain two leaders in Kiser and fifth-year guard Leigha Brown, who both took advantage of their COVID-19 eligibility years to remain with the program.
Finding a replacement for Hillmon’s 21 points and 9.6 rebounds per game is an implausible notion — and it’s something Michigan recognizes cannot be done by a single player. But the Wolverines believe Kiser and Brown’s leadership can guide them toward a new identity, one that can overcome the loss of Hillmon’s scoring and rebounding.
Kiser broke out last season, averaging 9.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while starting every contest — one of only two players to do so. Brown, Michigan’s second-highest scorer behind Hillmon, served as an x-factor, coming in clutch when the Wolverines needed someone to step up. Kiser’s rebounding and consistency, paired with Brown’s unequivocal presence, will be vital in establishing the team’s post-Hillmon future.
And they both understand their role in the transition.
“As a team, (our goal is) to continue to take this program to new heights,” Kiser said. “ … Individually, I’m not really super focused on that, to be honest. I’m definitely more team minded right now.”
Brown echoed a similar sentiment:
“I haven’t really thought about a whole lot of individual statistical goals this year,” Brown said. “Aside from just doing everything I can to (help us) get as far as we can to continue to make history.”
In addition to what the duo brings on the court, their maturity and leadership will be key in guiding new members of the program. Kiser and Brown served as two of the strongest leaders last season, and retaining their captaincy is a stabilizing force for a team undergoing lineup transformation.
While that transformation is still in its early stages, the Wolverines have a clear-cut mindset to lead them towards success.
“We’re in a different role now where people aren’t picking us to necessarily be as successful as we’ve been before,” Barnes Arico said. “And I think the players inside our program have a little bit of a chip on their shoulders for that, and they have a little bit of a ‘something to prove’ mentality.”
Coming off the best season in program history, Michigan has lofty goals of proving itself and reaching similar heights this year. With Kiser and Brown at the helm, the Wolverines have the necessary pieces to do so.
But in the process, the Wolverines are tasked with finding their new identity — an identity without Hillmon.