After reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament each of the past two seasons, the Michigan women’s basketball team has high expectations for the 2019-20 season, highlighted by a program goal of making it to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Wolverines will have the chance to notch their first high-profile victory on Saturday against Notre Dame after opening the season with four games against mid-major opponents. The Fighting Irish aren’t the powerhouse that made seven of the last nine Final Fours — they have opened the season 3-2, with home losses to No. 15 Michigan State and No. 23 Tennessee — but Michigan isn’t taking last year’s NCAA Tournament runner-up lightly.
“That’s a game for us that we circle on our schedule regardless of how great their start was this year,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “I know right now, their record is not what they want it to be, but their schedule has been incredibly difficult and they graduated everyone that really contributed on that Final Four team last year.”
Despite losing all five starters from a season ago — and its top five scorers — Notre Dame’s roster is far from barren. Its starting lineup consists of three top-25 recruits from the past two seasons in forward Sam Brunelle and guards Katlyn Gilbert and Anaya Peoples, and two graduate transfers — Marta Sniezek from Stanford and Destinee Walker from North Carolina. These five could cause trouble for the Wolverines because of the mismatches they create — four are guards, and the only forward, Brunelle, has attempted 40 3-pointers this season.
“It’s gonna be a tough matchup because their ‘4’ and ‘5’ are really guards, and they’re gonna face-up, they’re gonna try to take you off the bounce,” Barnes Arico said. “We gotta constantly be moving … because we’re gonna have our posts match up with guards, and that’s gonna be difficult at times.”
While these mismatches could create trouble on the defensive end, Notre Dame’s lack of size plays right into Michigan’s biggest strength offensively: interior scoring.
“As tough as it’s gonna be for us to defend them because they don’t really have any true posts, it’s gonna be a challenge for them to defend us,” Barnes Arico said. “I think Naz (Hillmon) is playing exceptionally well inside. I think Izabel Varejão gives them something that they don’t have, a 6-foot-5 post. How are they gonna defend that? How are they gonna defend Naz’s strength inside? So I think they’re gonna have matchup problems with us as well.”
The Wolverines will also need to clean up their offensive play in order to limit fast-break opportunities for the Fighting Irish. Michigan got away with turning the ball over 61 times over four games and giving up double-digit points off turnovers in each of its last two games.
Barnes Arico identified transition defense as an area needing improvement. The Fighting Irish have scored double-digit points off turnovers in each of their five games despite shooting under 50 percent in all of them. Allowing them to get out in transition often could spell trouble for the Wolverines.
Michigan can alleviate some of Notre Dame’s transition offense with strong play on the offensive glass. The Wolverines are averaging more than 10 offensive rebounds per game, and their clear size advantage should give them many second-chance scoring opportunities.
Michigan has a relatively young team, but the majority of its players were there last season, when the Wolverines played three games against two top-10 teams — two against Maryland and one against Louisville.
In particular, their two young stars clearly showed growth between their first and second matchups against the Terrapins. Hillmon’s scoring total greatly improved, and sophomore guard Amy Dilk tallied 11 assists and shot more efficiently as Michigan lost by one, giving the Wolverines optimism that their best players will step up in their biggest game so far this season.