I haven’t been very consistent in getting you articles about the women’s hoops and I apologize for that. One reason is that I keep hoping Jon will finally find a real basketball writer. The other is that last season sucked so badly. It was hard to watch and even harder to write about. You can only say “they shouldn’t be this bad” so many times.
I had tamped down my expectations for this season. I saw enough signs of improvement at the end of last season to feel hopeful about Amy Williams and her staff. The suckitude of 2016-17 didn’t appear to be about a bad coaching hire or recruiting stars that were flashes in the pan.
No, last season appears to be about a coach drawing a hard line and insisting on doing things her way. No hybrid scheme to adjust to players; no introducing things slowly over 2 or 3 seasons. My way. Do it. I could be very wrong about that analysis, but that is what it looked like to me.
As we have gotten past the halfway point of this season, I think the results speak for themselves. This is one of the most improved teams in the country. They may be young, but they have grit. They are getting contributions from everyone. Someone goes down or has a bad night? Someone else steps up. This team has a streak of seven straight road wins, including their last three conference games (vs Minnesota, Northwestern, and Illinois).
Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. I really like this team. No one will mistake them for a ranked program yet, but they are perfectly capable of knocking off a ranked team (except the elite handful at the top) any given night. That brings us to the #23 Michigan Wolverines.
Michigan was snubbed for an NCAA tournament bid last season, but went on to win the WNIT. They return four starters from that team.
The Wolverines are coached by Kim Barnes Arico (sixth season in Ann Arbor) and have a 14-4 overall record that includes a 3-2 Big Ten mark after an 84-79 home win over Indiana on Wednesday night. All four of Michigan’s losses have come to ranked opponents, including a 78-71 overtime loss to No. 10 Ohio State (a team the Huskers lost to by 12 in a game that was more competitive than the score indicates). The Wolverines also suffered an 82-72 road loss at then-No. 23 Iowa on New Year’s Eve. Michigan took an 83-63 setback to then-No. 3 Notre Dame (Nov. 29) and a 74-49 loss to then-No. 5 Louisville (Nov. 16).
Against unranked teams Michigan is 14-0 while winning by an average of nearly 25 points per game (1,123-777) 80.2-55.5. Nebraska is going to need to step up their defense and offense to win this one. The Husker defense has been solid, not spectacular (middle of the pack in the Big Ten), but has shown up in a big way against the top offenses they’ve faced so far, holding both Minnesota and Ohio State 20 points below their season average.
The Wolverines feature one of the nation’s most explosive shooters in senior Katelynn Flaherty who was a first team All-Big Ten selection a year ago. The 5-7 senior guard is averaging 22.9 points per game while hitting 52-of-148 (.351) of her three-pointers. She has added a team-best 4.0 assists per game. She reminds me of Natalie Romeo, who left the Huskers two seasons ago after Connie Yori resigned. Either Nicea Eliely or Jasmine Cincore (probably both) will need to be their usual lockdown selves to keep her in check.
Junior Hallie Thome was a first-team All-Big Ten selection. She gives the Wolverines a potent inside presence, averaging 16.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. The 6-5 center is shooting 64.3 percent from the field and 76.9 percent (60-78) at the line. She has added a team-best 25 blocked shots. Nebraska will need Kate Cain to have one of her best games against Thome.
Junior Nicole Munger gives Michigan three starters averaging double figures with 10.3 points and 4.1 rebounds while shooting a team-best 42.4 percent (42-99) from three-point range. Senior Jillian Dunston, a 5-11 forward, pitches in 3.4 points and team bests of 9.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals while ranking second on the team with 3.8 assists per game. Those four starters were key pieces for a Michigan team that finished 28-9 overall and 11-5 in the Big Ten last year.
To me, the key to the Huskers having a chance in this game is Cain. If she can stay out of foul trouble and stay on the floor, Nebraska has a shot. If Cain has an off night on defense or has to sit significant minutes, Nebraska will need their other big posts to step up. Those are Washington and Blackburn, both 6’3” and both solid on the defensive side of things. Washington is typically the first one off the bench when Cain needs to sit. Blackburn’s playing time has been decreasing since non-conference play. I didn’t see anything in her performance to warrant a decrease (she was one of the most productive players per minute played), so I have to assume her chronic knee issues are playing a role, which is unfortunate as she is a fun player to watch.
My guess on this game? The Wolverines come out firing early and put the Huskers in a hole. Nebraska begins to figure a few things out, still turns the ball over too many times and misses too many free throws, but gets back within 10 at some point late in the game. If they do that by the start of the fourth quarter, I expect to see a team that outplays and outhustles Michigan in the final frame and has a chance at the upset.
Join us for the game thread tonight (it will go up at 6:45).