LOUISVILLE, Ky. — You can’t watch a Michigan women’s basketball game without noticing Hallie Thome.
With her commanding 6-foot-5 frame, Thome has made a habit of dominating opposing centers over her four-year career. By combining her unique size advantage with a soft and skillful touch around the rim, Thome recently became the third-highest scorer in Wolverines' history.
And yet, new this season, the star center isn’t the only Wolverine who poses a matchup problem due to their length.
Big Ten Freshman of the Year, forward Naz Hillmon — standing at 6-foot-2 — has been a formidable force down-low all season long. Despite coming off the bench, Hillmon is fourth in the conference in offensive rebounds.
Sophomore forward Hailey Brown and junior forward Kayla Robbins have shown an ability to battle in the paint on defense and hit a midrange jumper on the other end.
The perimeter is no different. Whether it’s six-foot freshman point guard Amy Dilk, who leads the team in steals, or lanky guards Deja Church and Akienreh Johnson, Michigan’s length means trouble for most.
This is especially the case with the Wolverines’ first-round opponent Kansas State. Looking at their roster, it may not seem like the Wildcats are small in stature, but against teams with length — of which there are many in the Big 12 — they’ve struggled mightily.
“Not only (is Michigan) very talented inside, but they play very physical,” said Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie. “Their rebounding numbers, that’s a problem for us, quite honestly. It’s been a problem for us. I’m sure (Michigan’s) front line is excited to play.”
Added forward Peyton Williams, the Wildcats' leading scorer: “Minimizing inside movement is going to be a big key to the the game. They have some big players and recognizing that we struggle with that sometimes.”
One of Michigan’s greatest strengths is its rebounding. The Wolverines were amongst the Big Ten’s leaders in rebounding margin, offensive rebounds and total rebounds per game.
Conversely, rebounding is one of Kansas State’s greatest weaknesses. The Wildcats were either last or second to last in the Big 12 in rebounding margin and offensive and defensive rebounds per game. By all accounts, it appears Michigan should have a huge advantage on both the offensive and defensive glass.
With size comes versatility. When the Wolverines have been at their best this season, they’ve been able to capitalize on this versatility. During its latest hot-streak, Michigan has employed it’s full-court press with greater regularity and to great success. “Twelve,” as they call it, is predicated on the Wolverines’ length.
“I think our length has been tremendous this year,” Thome said. “ ‘Twelve’ has been a whole new level for us because we have Naz at the top (of the press). When we need a spark, Naz comes in and we go to it right away and we always get turnovers we need to spark the offense.”
In half-court defense, the size and versatility also pays dividends. In seven of the last 11 games — in which Michigan has gone 9-2 — opponents have shot below 40-percent from the field. In nine of the last 11 games, the Wolverines have forced double-digit turnovers.
“We just have to make sure we have our hands up and are doing things to affect and alter their shots,” Hillmon said.
On the offensive end, Michigan’s length also allows it to be versatile. Thome and Hillmon are clearly competent post players, but Johnson and Dilk can isolate their defenders in the paint and finish through contact. At the same time, Brown and Robbins can stretch the floor with their shooting abilities.
“I think we’re a lot more versatile having the size in there because you can pick on different defenders,” said senior guard Nicole Munger. “I think it’s just really great for match-ups.”
If the Wolverines intend to progress into the round of 32, they must capitalize on their size advantage against Kansas State.
“We know that’s one of our keys tomorrow,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Obviously rebounding but also establishing our posts. Hallie Thome is tremendous inside. Hailey Brown, Kayla Robbins, Naz Hillmon — those are difference makers for us and that’s a place where we have to go early in the ball game.”