LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Right now, the wound is likely still fresh.
On Sunday afternoon, the Michigan women’s basketball team saw its season end when it bowed out of the NCAA Tournament following a 70-51 loss to top-seeded Louisville. While it may be hard to see it now, this year’s tournament run may have laid the bricks that will eventually serve as the program’s foundation.
Not long ago, Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico announced the nation’s 12th-ranked recruiting class, which was headlined by freshmen forward Naz Hillmon and guard Amy Dilk.
Tasked with the impossible job of replacing the production of the program’s all-time leading scorer Katelynn Flaherty, Dilk ran the offense with great efficiency — as if she was a seasoned veteran. While there were some bumps along the way, Dilk looks poised and ready to handle having the keys to the Wolverines’ offense.
“I've learned a lot obviously, mentally and physically, growing as a player,” Dilk said on Friday after the team’s win against Kansas State.
Hillmon, on the other hand, became one of the biggest surprises of the season, averaging a team-high 13.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game despite coming off the bench. The season helped Hillmon earn two honors: the media’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year and the coaches’ Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year.
If she continues her exceptional play, it’s hard to imagine that these accolades won’t be the last she receives in her career. For Hillmon, though, the bond she shares with her teammates means far more than whatever awards might come her way.
“This has been the most fun year I’ve had playing basketball,” Hillmon said. “We're really close as a team, that's what makes it a lot of fun. That's all that matters.”
Despite having just finished their first collegiate seasons, Hillmon and Dilk represent the next generation of Michigan basketball. While seniors forward Hallie Thome and guard Nicole Munger helped to establish Michigan basketball as an NCAA Tournament-caliber squad, the next generation will be responsible for keeping it there. Barnes Arico believes that her squad is more than up to the challenge.
“We are going to respond and we are going to show that it's not just one year,” Barnes Arico said following the loss to Louisville. “We're going to be (in the NCAA Tournament) year-in and year-out and we want to take the next steps in the program.”
Next season, the Wolverines will be without Munger and Thome, who helped set the tone for the team’s culture both on and off the court. Despite losing two of its key pieces, Michigan will return virtually its entire roster, all of whom should only continue to grow and develop with a season or more under their belts.
“This is probably one of the first teams in my career that I have to throw them out of the gym after practice,” Barnes Arico said. “They want to continue getting shots up or they want to continue working or they want to get better.”
Of course, a second consecutive defeat at the hands of one of the nation’s most dangerous squads will be a tough pill to swallow. That being said, if this Wolverine team has proven anything this season, it’s that it is more than prepared to put in the extra work to not only stay on the mountain that is the NCAA Tournament, but also reach its peak. And while this year’s departing class was never able to reach that point, those who will be able to fight another season are more than prepared to get there.
“We have a lot of great pieces coming back and our kids know that they are hungry to take those next steps in the NCAA Tournament,” Barnes Arico said.
With this group, these next steps look within reach.