With its season slated to start next Thursday, the Michigan women’s basketball team has its eyes set on a previously unattained prize: a Big Ten Conference Championship.
“Big Ten Champs,” senior point guard Amy Dilk said to the media at Michigan’s media day. “We say that every day in practice. That’s what we’re working for.”
Enthusiasm permeates throughout the Wolverines this year. Actually winning a Big Ten Championship will be a formidable task, though. Michigan enters the season ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP Poll, but it will have to face top-ranked opponents all season long. Games against No. 14 Oregon State, No. 6 Louisville and No. 7 Baylor will be fierce tests for the Wolverines early on, and conference rivalry matchups against No. 4 Maryland, No. 8 Indiana and No. 9 Iowa will offer tough challenges later in the season.
“I think our schedule is probably tougher than it’s ever been,” coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “That’s going to test us a lot, but prepare us for a Big Ten conference which is going to be stronger than it’s ever been.”
In the nearly 40 years since the 1982-83 season, when the Big Ten started sponsoring women’s basketball, Michigan has yet to win a conference championship. But this group of Wolverines is no stranger to unprecedented success — they reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history last March. And leading the charge for Michigan is its first Big Ten Player of the Year and first All-American: senior forward Naz Hillmon.
Hillmon had an excellent season last year averaging 23.9 points per game, on an extremely efficient 62.3% from the field, and 11.4 rebounds per game. Hillmon is still looking to expand her game in two main areas, though: playmaking and stretching the floor.
“Since the beginning of the season, I put Naz in that point guard group, and she kind of looked at me a little bit the first day. I said, ‘Well it’s an opportunity for you to work on your handle.’ ” Barnes Arico said. “She wants to continue to work on her handle, and she wants to continue to work on her outside shot.”
Hillmon averaged 1.3 assists per game last season and didn’t attempt a three-pointer. Instead, the Michigan offense revolved around getting her the ball in the post and letting her go to work against opposing bigs. With her working on expanding her game to the perimeter, her numbers in both categories could rise, and her impact on the offense could become even greater.
Joining Hillmon and the rest of the returning Wolverines this season is an impressive freshman class, highlighted by a pair of four-star recruits: guards Laila Phelia and Ari Wiggins.
Phelia comes to Michigan as the No. 28 recruit in the nation, according to ESPN. An established winner, she finished her high school career with two Ohio State Championships and a 72-game winning streak.
Wiggins joins the Wolverines as the No. 68 recruit in the nation, according to ESPN. After putting up an impressive 27.6 points per game as a senior in high school and finishing as the runner-up for Miss Basketball in Indiana, Wiggins was drawn to Michigan because of the culture that Barnes Arico has built.
“I think the family atmosphere she builds and continues to grow is the biggest part that brought me here,” Wiggins said. “Just being able to be here for a couple months, I already feel like I’m close to the girls. I call them all my sisters.”
With their sights set on a Big Ten Conference Championship, this sense of sisterhood must remain strong for the Wolverines to face the challenges and adversity that they are bound to face this season.