Halfway through its conference season, the Michigan women’s basketball team is exactly where it wants to be — poised to shake off its postseason slump.
The Wolverines’ 17-5 record through 22 games is their best in program history, and with five of their final eight regular season games coming against teams in the bottom half of the Big Ten, it wouldn’t be far-fetched for them to run the table and secure a place in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
“I’m surprised with our success considering our youth,” said junior forward Jillian Dunston. “Everyone’s embraced their roles and applied it the best they can and helped us reach these aspirations. … Everyone had the same attitude and the same goals.
“In order to achieve our goals, we have to get it done now. It’s not a next year thing.”
Wednesday’s matchup at Illinois (3-6 Big Ten, 8-14 overall) will provide Michigan with the opportunity to move one step closer to making that possibility a reality.
The Fighting Illini — entering the contest on a four-game losing streak — have struggled this season to challenge teams with their lackluster offense. They average just 62.5 points per contest and sport an ugly 38.7 percent field-goal percentage, placing them in the bottom third for Division I teams.
When Illinois is making its shots, its offense is typically through 6-foot-1 forward Alex Wittinger, who leads the team with 15.2 points per game. Wittinger is also the Fighting Illini’s best player on the defensive end, averaging 8.2 boards and 2.4 blocks per game.
While Wittinger has catalyzed an otherwise lifeless offense, she will have a four-inch height disadvantage in her matchup against one of the Big Ten’s best centers in Hallie Thome, who has anchored the Wolverines’ defense and boasts the ninth-best field goal percentage in the country (63.8).
“[It's] important for us to reward Hallie,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico on WTKA on Tuesday. “If she’s gonna run the floor the way that she does, we’re giving her touches. Our team does an outstanding job of finding her in transition.”
Illinois should find it difficult to maneuver around Thome at the rim, and may struggle to find success beyond the arc to compensate. The Fighting Illini rank 145th in made 3-pointers. By comparison, Michigan is 13th.
A significant contributor to the Wolverines’ offensive prowess has been freshman Kysre Gondrezick. The 5-foot-9 guard has been spectacular since playing her way into the starting lineup on Dec. 28, and was recently awarded both Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Week honors for posting 22 points, seven boards and six assists in Michigan’s 80-54 win over Northwestern last Wednesday.
“Kysre has really shown her ability to be a playmaker at the next level,” Barnes Arico said. “Sometimes when you have a bunch of kids on your team that are great scorers, they forget their ability to pass the basketball and make the extra pass.”
Everything seems to favor the Wolverines going into the contest, but one glaring problem lies ahead of them in tomorrow’s matchup — the Fighting Illini love playing at the State Farm Center. They have an 8-5 record at home, compared to 0-9 outside of Champaign.
“Illinois is a team that plays really well at home,” Barnes Arico said. “They play a five-out style which will be tough for our bigs. They’ll try to penetrate and draw fouls and get to the free-throw line.”
But barring an anomalous performance from Michigan, it shouldn’t be too concerned.