The Michigan women’s basketball team is on a rough two-game skid to start the Big Ten season, and the schedule will only get tougher from here as the Wolverines (0-2 Big Ten, 8-5 overall) host Big Ten-leading Iowa and No. 5 Ohio State for two out of the next three games. Thursday night, they will play the Hawkeyes (3-0 Big Ten, 12-3 overall), looking to right the ship.
In its past three games, Michigan fell by two points or fewer to Eastern Michigan and Purdue, and suffered an overtime defeat to Indiana. Last year, aided by senior leadership, the Wolverines handled each of those teams with ease. Though the Big Ten season has just begun, it is evident that losing former seniors Cyesha Goree, Nicole Elmblad and Shannon Smith has created a tough transition period to begin the season.
This year’s Michigan team is certainly different than last year’s. The Wolverines are talented, and the freshman class of center Hallie Thome, guard Boogie Brozoski, guard Nicole Munger and forward Sam Trammel will bring Michigan success by the time their careers are over. But for now, inexperience has hurt this team, especially in the close losses. The clearest example is Thome, who has gotten into foul trouble early, unable to play late in games when the team needs her 6-foot-5 frame for an inside presence on both offense and defense.
“We started the season playing exceptionally well, and then we hit a little bit of a bump in the road,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico in an interview with WTKA. “For the most part, (we have) kids who have never been in that position before down the stretch of tough games. So they’re learning and their confidence is shaken a little bit, but it’s something we continue to work on in practice.”
Against Eastern Michigan, the Wolverines had a 12-point lead going into the fourth quarter. The Eagles kept pecking away at the lead, even though they were facing a more talented team. Talent didn’t beat effort, and Eastern Michigan clinched an upset win on its home floor.
In the last home game against Purdue, the Boilermakers scored the go-ahead basket in the waning seconds. When it was Michigan’s turn to step up, it wasn’t accustomed to the pressure. The Wolverines took the ball up the court, passed off for a worse shot and missed. After a foul, Brozoski — who is shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe this season — had an opportunity to tie the game by making three straight free throws, but missed the first.
Against Indiana, the Wolverines surged in the fourth quarter to cushion a lead going into the final minutes. The Hoosiers then went on a 12-3 run to end the quarter, forcing the game into overtime, when Michigan eventually lost again.
Iowa lies just outside the top 25, but was ranked 23rd at the beginning of the season. The Hawkeyes also lost three seniors — the highest-scoring trio of all time in the Big Ten with 42.3 points per game — but are trending the opposite way as Michigan. Iowa is currently on a four-game winning streak, including kicking off Big Ten play 2-0. Led by guard Ally Disterhoft, who is averaging 17.1 points, the Hawkeyes boast three players who average double figures.
In the two conference games Michigan has played thus far, it has allowed an average of 71 points, while scoring an average of 66. Iowa has done nearly the reverse, on average scoring 71.5 points and allowing 66.5. It would not be a surprise if the trend continued, especially since Iowa already has a challenging road win on its resume, in Lincoln on New Year’s Eve against Nebraska.
With the toughest games ahead of the Wolverines, a win against the Hawkeyes could change the momentum of their whole season. Iowa is the better team on paper, but the Wolverines are not guaranteed a loss. If the contest is close in its last minutes, Michigan will face another situation in which the game is down to the wire, needing not just one player on the floor to step up, but all five.
“The last couple weeks we watched a lot of film on areas where we need to improve and things we’re not doing exceptionally well,” Barnes Arico said. “We’re going to really watch some things and some times where we played exceptionally well. We had a 30-point win over Pittsburgh, a team that is doing pretty well right now, and (against) Xavier, a team that has only two losses, we had a 30-point win.”
At the moment, Michigan does not look like a Big Ten contender. It is near the bottom of the standings and has lost three straight games that should have ended differently. If the Wolverines had closed out those games with a win, they would have just two hard-fought losses to Princeton and No. 15 UCLA.
But instead, they started off with three Big Ten losses, and face another difficult obstacle in Iowa. Michigan is aware of its challenge ahead, though.
“I was coming over to Pizza House for the radio show, leaving the office at 6:45 (p.m.), and I had three freshmen walking into the gym to get some extra shots up,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s a great thing to see that they haven’t lost their determination and they’re still fighting.”