The Michigan women’s basketball team has made short order of most of its opponents. Mid-major teams like Morgan State, Eastern Michigan and Bradley have offered little resistance, and as a result, the Wolverines’ six wins came at an average margin of 23 points.
But against Notre Dame — the only real challenge Michigan has faced — the Wolverines fell, 76-72, their only loss so far this season. While the loss has little impact on the team’s goals for the remainder of the season, it raises question marks about whether it can truly compete in Big Ten play this year.
Michigan has an opportunity to answer some of those questions at Crisler Center Thursday night, when it hosts Syracuse in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Though the Orange dropped out of the rankings after consecutive losses to Stanford and Green Bay, they received the most votes outside the Top 25 in both the AP and Coaches’ Polls, effectively making them the No. 26 team in the country. Much like the Wolverines, they’ll be looking to notch their first signature win and build some momentum going into conference play.
Offensively, much of Syracuse’s production comes from beyond the arc. Despite shooting just 31 percent from three so far this year, the Orange rank 13th nationally in 3-pointers made, sinking 9.6 triples per game.
Guard Gabrielle Cooper exemplifies this average efficiency, high volume style of play. So far this year, she has sunk 14 of her 51 attempted 3-pointers — both numbers the most on the team. She is followed closely by forward Digna Strautmane, who has shot a slightly more efficient 13-for-41, good for 31.7 percent from beyond the arc.
But Syracuse’s most valuable offensive weapon by far is guard Kiara Lewis. The Ohio State transfer was thrust into the starting role after ACC Player of the Year candidate Tiana Mangakahia was forced to redshirt to recover from chemotherapy treatments.
Lewis has shined in her new role, leading the team in both points and assists per game — 15.9 and 6.0, respectively. Her ability to drive the lane and draw fouls adds diversity to the Orange’s offensive attack and forces opponents to play tentatively to avoid fouling out.
“They can go inside-out, and they shoot a ton of threes,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “So it’s going to be a real test for us (defensively).”
Syracuse also boasts a defense that matches up well against the Wolverines’ struggles to take care of the ball on offense. Michigan averages over 16 turnovers per game, and its 24 giveaways were crucial in the loss to Notre Dame. The Orange’s signature zone defense — as well as their length and quickness in the guard spot — could cause similar problems for the Wolverines’ turnover-prone offense.
“We have to limit our turnovers,” said senior guard Akienreh Johnson. “(We have to) score on the offensive end on the best shot every single time we’re on offense. Take pride in our possessions.”
Michigan showed promise against Morgan State on Sunday, when it followed up a 12-turnover first half with only three in the second half. That change will need to stick if the Wolverines want to pick up their first signature win Thursday night.
“They’re a tremendous team,” Barnes Arico said. “We need to be able to handle their pressure, their length, and their zone defense … It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to get another great opponent at home.”