The longer the Michigan women’s basketball team (9-9 Big Ten, 17-13 overall) can extend its season, the more it can work toward making sure it returns to the Big Dance next year.
The Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament hopes were stifled again this year, leaving them to play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament for the third straight year.
The WNIT bracket was revealed late Monday night, and it pits Michigan against Wright State in the first round.
Last year, the Wolverines also played in the WNIT and ran all the way to the semifinals before falling to the eventual champion, UCLA. If Michigan is focused on improving its young team, then the WNIT is indeed the right fit.
The Wolverines undoubtedly would struggle to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but the WNIT gives them a solid chance to play another four, five or even six more games before concluding the 2015-16 season.
Above anything else, additional games are what Michigan needs.
A large portion of the roster returns next year. Seniors Madison Ristovski and Kelsey Mitchell have had big roles, but it’s mostly been about supporting the younger scorers: sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty and freshman center Hallie Thome.
“Last year, we had a great run in the WNIT, and it gave us an extra month of practice,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico on her weekly radio appearance with WTKA. “It was invaluable to our younger kids, and it gave our seniors a chance to out on such a great note.
“When you lose in your conference tournament and don’t get into the NCAA Tournament, you’re devastated. Our seniors last year were devastated, and (the WNIT) gave them the opportunity to try and do something that hasn’t been done before.”
Flaherty experienced the postseason for the first time in last year’s WNIT run, and playing in a postseason — a win-or-go-home setting — could be a massive learning opportunity for the future, especially for this freshman class.
It’s not the NCAA Tournament, which was the goal, but it’s something. And Michigan’s first opponent might be the perfect fit, too.
Wright State (12-6 Horizon League, 24-10 overall) finished second in its conference, but its efforts were not enough to make the NCAA Tournament field. The Raiders’ chances against Michigan seem slim on paper as the two sides have had some overlap in opponents.
Wright State fell to Iowa — the team that knocked Michigan out of the Big Ten Tournament — by just six points in November. Michigan lost two of its three meetings with the Hawkeyes.
The Raiders and Wolverines also both played Detroit this season. Michigan blew out the Titans by 27 in the second game of the season, and Wright State split the season series against them.
“Wright State is a great program,” Barnes Arico said. “They’ve had a few really good years back to back. They’re led by one player, Kim Demmings, and she is just a tremendous scorer for them. They run the dribble drive.”
Demmings averages a team-high 20.4 points, and also maintains a solid six rebounds per game tally.
Wright has an inside presence as well with Antania Hayes, who scores 12.2 points per game, which should be a good matchup for Thome. Barnes Arico mentioned that it will be important to contain the Raiders and prevent their dribble penetration.
With a win, Michigan would move on to face the winner of Akron and Bucknell, which will be played Thursday. That second-round game will take place between Saturday and Tuesday, and the home court is yet to determined.