Michigan women’s basketball team ready for recall


ANN ARBOR – Kim Barnes Arico isn’t superstitious, but she made a small exception on Thursday.

The Michigan women’s basketball head coach wore the same pants she wore the last time Michigan played a game.

“I wore these lucky Sweet 16 pants today,” she said on the program’s media day, “just because it brought back fond memories of last year.”

With three returning holders, including reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and All-American Naz Hillmon, the Wolverines hope to build on the deepest NCAA tournament in program history.

Michigan went 16-6 last season and for the first time reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Baylor in overtime by three points. During a tough season under the COVID-19 cloud, the Wolverines stuck together and played their best basketball when it mattered most.

The reproduction of this success begins with Hillmon, a 6-foot-2-inch senior. She averaged 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game last year. She scored 50 in a game, the most in school history, male or female.

Hillmon has always done most of his damage around the basket. Don’t expect that to change, but she’s working on expanding her game. Hillmon will sometimes join the point guard for certain drills – Barnes Arico’s idea – to improve her handling of the ball.

“She wants to continue to develop her line, she wants to continue to be able to bounce back, she wants to be able to lead the break in transition,” said Barnes Arico.

In 2,595 career minutes, Hillmon has only attempted one 3-point score, and Barnes Arico recalled that it was a midfield shot to beat the buzzer. Hillmon has said she wants to build consistency with her outside shot before deploying it in games.

Helping Hillmon is a veteran supporting cast. Leigha Brown, a 6-foot-1 senior, transferred from Nebraska before last season and had an immediate impact on the wing. She is a dynamic offensive player who averaged 18.2 points per game (24.7 in the NCAA tournament).

Amy Dilk, who missed the tournament run, is back as the point guard. The same goes for her playoff replacement Danielle Rauch. Both are seniors. (Do you sense a theme here?)

Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown have been gone since last year. Junior guard Maddie Nolan and senior forward Emily Kiser are candidates to fill the void, especially when it comes to outside shots. Brown, a forward, helped Michigan space the floor for Hillmon on the inside. Nolan shot 37 percent from 3-point range on 57 attempts last season. The 6-foot-3 Kiser, who recorded modest numbers in 12.5 minutes per game off the bench last year, is also a capable shooter.

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To have a great team, Barnes Arico said: “Obviously you need great players like Naz and Leigha, but you need great pieces. And you need players who are selfless and willing to do whatever they can to help the team succeed. Rauch, Kizer and Nolan are the main ones among these types of players, Barnes Arico said.

A pair of juniors will be looking to break the rotation after playing little Рor not at all Рlast year. Goalkeeper Michelle Sidor is hoping to bring energy and shots to the backcourt. Izabel Varej̣o, a 6-foot-4 center who had a promising freshman season in 2019-20, has been stuck in his native Brazil for most of the season and has never been adapted.

Barnes Arico considers his three sophomores to be, in some ways, freshmen given the unusual college experience last year. She has a son who is also in second grade.

“Every day I talk to him and think about the things he’s been through, I remember what our freshmen really went through (last year),” she said.

On the field, the trio of Whitney Sollom (6ft 4in), Elise Stuck (6-1), and Cameron Williams (6-3) trained well. “They give us great length on the inside,” said Barnes Arico.

As for first-year students, Michigan has four. Laila Phelia is a 6-foot guard from Cincinnati ranked No. 28 in the 2021 class by ESPN. Barnes Arico said she can score at all three levels, defend and “do a little bit of everything”. Point guard Ari Wiggins is “possibly the fastest kid” Barnes Arico has ever coached, a 5-foot-8 “lightning-fast” southpaw from Indianapolis ranked No. 68 in the class. Wiggins wore a walking boot Thursday after rolling her ankle in training last week, but she expects to be ready for the start of the season on November 9.

Jordan Hobbs (6-foot-3 guard from Springboro, Ohio) is one of Michigan’s top shooters, according to Barnes Arico. Taylor Gibson (6-foot-2 forward from Upper Marlboro, Md.) Plays Hillmon’s position, so she probably won’t be needed much this season.

“When I think about who can contribute, it’s obvious today is different than next week or two weeks or January or February,” said Barnes Arico. “But some of them are definitely going to find their way on the pitch this year because they change the dynamics of our team when they’re on the pitch.”

Related: After the best season in Michigan women’s basketball history, Kim Barnes Arico reviews her staff

Michigan will look to mix newcomers and veterans to build on last year’s achievements, which included a 10-0 start (another program record) and a victory at Notre Dame.

Still, the Wolverines finished fourth in the Big Ten. In Barnes Arico’s nine years as a coach, Michigan’s best result is third, which he once did. Big Ten women’s basketball has been around since 1982 and Michigan has never won a regular season or tournament title, and only finished second in the regular season standings once, in 1999-00.

The current team is well aware of this.

“Our goal is always to win a championship, to be the first team to win a Big Ten championship,” said Sidor. She and her teammates know that such a banner does not hang from the rafters of the Crisler Center. The players use it as a motivation.

“The coach is talking about it, about the opportunity that we have at our fingertips,” said Sidor. “We are a special team with the opportunity to do special things.”

The Big Ten will be difficult again. A preseason top 10 posted last month on NCAA.com included three Big Ten teams: Maryland (at No.4), Indiana (8) and Iowa (9). Michigan’s non-conference schedule is highlighted by neutral ground games against Oregon State and Baylor and a trip to Louisville.

Barnes Arico spoke on Thursday about how much of a selfless group last year’s team has been dealing with the adversity brought on by COVID. She has many fond memories of the season, including Hillmon who became emotional in a post-game interview after Michigan reached the Sweet 16 because the focus was ultimately on her team and not just her.

“You want to bottle it because every year is different and there’s no guarantee that this year will be the same,” said Barnes Arico.

Maybe not. It might be even better.

About Ronda Reed

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