There had been 45 minutes of chatter and giggling from the Michigan women’s basketball team as it watched ESPN’s selection show for the NCAA Tournament.
But after the final region was announced with the Wolverines missing from the bracket, the room immediately fell silent.
Michigan waited patiently for its name to be called Monday night. When they realized that moment would never come, the players uniformly stood up and huddled around fifth-year coach Kim Barnes Arico, who stressed the importance of resiliency in the face of disappointment. Athletic director Warde Manuel hugged Barnes Arico as she said goodbye to her team for the night.
Just three weeks ago, the Michigan women’s basketball team was a top-25 team in the country on the verge of having its best season in program history. And yet, Monday night, it was left in an all-too-familiar position — with a Women’s National Invitation Tournament matchup with Kent State scheduled for Thursday. it was no wonder that the feeling of uneasiness filled every crevice of the room.
Despite losing four of their last five games and suffering an early exit from the Big Ten Tournament, the Selection Committee’s decision to leave the Wolverines (11-5 Big Ten, 22-9 overall) out of the tournament left Barnes Arico and her players scratching their heads. Instead of the Tournament, Michigan will enter the WNIT, where the Wolverines will host the Golden Flashes in Ann Arbor for the first round.
“(I am) surprised, devastated, really disappointed — especially for our senior class, who has worked so hard and done things that haven’t been done in our program for a long time,” Barnes Arico said. “I just wanted them to have the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. I thought we put ourselves in a really good position to be selected.
“We’ve never not been in all season long. We were a top-25 team at one point. We played the No. 1 conference schedule. There were a couple of teams that came up that were not in the bracketology that would knock some teams out, but we didn’t think it would be us.”
The Big Ten had just four teams make the tournament, and most of the qualifiers were not seeded favorably. Maryland — a top-five team for almost the entire season and one of just two teams to lose by single digits to powerhouse Connecticut — was slotted as a No. 3 seed. Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue rounded out the Big Ten representatives, seeded at No. 4, No. 9 and No. 9, respectively.
“When that first bracket came out and Maryland was a three in the UConn bracket it wasn’t a good sign for us. … It’s just disappointing how they voted our league,” Barnes Arico said.
For much of the season, the Wolverines received votes in both the Associated Press and Coaches Poll, ranking as high as No. 20 in the Feb. 13 poll, and finished in third place in the regular season Big Ten standings — points that surely will fuel the fire for Barnes Arico’s team the rest of the way.
“They’re gonna take it and take advantage to prove the rest of the country wrong,” Barnes Arico said.
The Wolverines have proven that they can run with nearly any team in the country, but after their sluggish finish, they will have to iron out their flaws with a lot to prove as they prepare for their WNIT game against the Golden Flashes.