Ready to dance: Michigan basketball likely favorite to go all the way to NCAA Tournament

“Those turnovers, those turnovers, those turnovers!”

Another Michigan player is careless with the basketball, and head coach Kim Barnes Arico is frustrated by too many turnovers. “They’re going to cost us,” she told her team. “We’ve got to value the ball.”

It’s a practice, one of several since Michigan’s 80-54 home win over Northwestern last Wednesday before the team plays Illinois this Wednesday. Barnes Arico tells her players that they’ll have to run a sprint for every turnover they commit. That motivates them to clean up their passes in the second half of the drill, but there’s still some punitive running.

The stakes are high as Michigan shoots to finish strong and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013—Barnes Arico’s first year in Ann Arbor. None of the players on her roster now was on the team then. Michigan has posted at least 20 wins the past three seasons and reached the semifinals of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT) the last two.

This season, at 17-5—and 6-2 in the Big Ten— the Wolverines may just break through to the Big Dance. And while doing so has always been the goal the past two years, heading into this season, a tournament appearance has become an expectation. “Especially being so close the past few years, it was like, ‘We’re done with that, we’re definitely going to win and do what we have to do to get there,’” says junior guard Katelynn Flaherty. “It was a different attitude this year.”

Flaherty averages 20 points a game, second most in the Big Ten. She’s among the best scorers in the country, adept at shooting off the catch or dribble and finishing around the rim. Give Flaherty a sliver of space and you’ll pay: She drained eight three-pointers against Ohio State earlier this year. As a team, Michigan is second in the nation in three-point percentage (41.5).

Michigan's Katelynn Flaherty readies for a shot during a Jan. 25, 2017 game against Northwestern University. (Photo courtesy of University of Michigan).
Michigan’s Katelynn Flaherty readies for a shot during a Jan. 25, 2017 game against Northwestern University. (Photo courtesy of University of Michigan).

“They came out on fire,” Northwestern head coach Joe McKeown said in a post-game interview after the matchup with Michigan last week. “They’re a really good offensive team.”

Having a center like sophomore Hallie Thome helps. The former Ohio Ms. Basketball winner set a school record for field goal percentage as a freshman and has shot even better this season (64 percent). She dropped 37 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against Wisconsin on Jan. 1.

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The 6-foot-5 lefty can now finish with either hand, but that wasn’t always the case. Case in point: The Wolverines like to perform skits during downtime on the road, and in one skit last year, the junior players impersonated Thome by catching objects with only their left hands, even those tossed to the right side of their body. Thome stayed in Ann Arbor all last summer, working on her right hand.

But what really separates Thome from other bigs isn’t her ambidextrous finishing, but her ability to run the floor. When the Michigan coaching staff looks at an upcoming matchup, one advantage they can usually count on is Thome’s capability to beat her defender in transition. Some if it comes from self-preservation. “I don’t really like the contact,” Thome says. “I’m not one that’s going to put myself in a position to get bumped around. With my size, usually people I guard don’t really want to run the floor. I’ve used it to my advantage, running the floor and getting easy buckets without the contact.”

When there is contact—and there’s plenty in the paint in the Big Ten—Barnes Arico says Thome has handled it much better than last year. After a recent game, a referee told the coach he’d noticed Thome’s improvement.

It’s critical, then, that Thome stays on the court. In Michigan’s two biggest conference games this season—against No. 11 Ohio State on Jan. 7 and No. 3 Maryland on Jan. 19, both on the road—Thome fouled out and Michigan lost. Barnes Arico says the top priority for opponents is to attack Thome and get her in foul trouble. “Because when she’s not out there, we’re a completely different team,” she says.

Playing at a high level, even after picking up a foul or two early, remains a challenge for Thome. After the Ohio State game, her coaches told her that her demeanor, effort and aggressiveness would shift in the wrong direction whenever she was whistled for a foul, so she’s working on correcting that. When she was called for a foul 30 seconds into the Northwestern game, she initially thought, ‘Oh, no, what’s going to happen?’ “But then I remembered what my coaches told me and stuck with it,” Thome says. She finished with 18 points in 33 minutes.

With Thome on the block and guards like Flaherty and freshman Kysre Gondrezick (13.7 points per game) on the perimeter, Michigan can put points on the board in a hurry. But in order to be more efficient, they’ll have to cut down on the turnovers.

Flaherty has the ball in her hands a lot, making plays for herself and others. But she’s posted 17 turnovers the last three games against five assists. Barnes Arico wants fewer than 10 turnovers per game—it’s why she emphasizes ball security in practice and had senior point guard Siera Thompson speak to the team beforehand. Thompson has by far Michigan’s best assist-to-turnover ratio at better than three-to-one. Over the past seven games, she’s recorded 41 assists and just six turnovers. She told her teammates about how she is strong when receiving the ball and doesn’t attempt risky passes.

Says Flaherty, “We want to hit Hallie early, but as the game goes on you have to adjust if they have two people on her. Sometimes we force it there without making the extra pass first.”

Post entry passes were certainly an issue in Michigan’s game against Maryland, a team with good length on the wings. Michigan led the Terrapins with under a minute left in the third quarter, but Maryland responded with a 17-4 run and won by 13. “The game was on the line and Maryland turned it up defensively and forced some turnovers,” Barnes Arico says. “In those situations, we still need to be able to take care of the ball and handle that pressure.”

As things stand today, Michigan is projected as a tournament team: RealTimeRPI.com and ESPN both have the Wolverines as a No. 7 seed. They are 27th in the AP Poll. Michigan doesn’t get Maryland or Ohio State at home this season, but could get a rematch in the Big Ten Tournament.

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Michigan hopes to be rested and ready. At the end of last season, the staff brainstormed ways to improve. “We felt there were times during the course of the year where we were wiped out,” Barnes Arico says. “We wanted to be more aware of saving our legs and bringing our best energy and effort to every game.”

This season in conference play, Michigan’s starters have averaged at least 30 minutes per game. Due to injuries and an unexpected transfer, only nine players have dressed for recent road games. To keep players fresh, coaches have organized for more off days and shorter practices. Veteran starters like Thompson will get pulled from certain drills and spend more time watching film. Flaherty told Barnes Arico last week that this is the best she’s felt at this point in the season in her college career.

“The more experienced kids you have and the more you trust and know them, they can have honest conversations with you,” Barnes Arico says. “If their legs are heavy and we need to cut back, we need to be smart. If they’re saying they’re feeling great, we can really push forward. That’s a big difference in our team—the maturity and the relationships built over three and four years.”

A hunger has been built, too. Watching the Tournament’s selection show in recent years has been painful for the Wolverines. The close games against ranked teams have shown them they can play with the best and may just need to fix little things in crunch time—a stronger box out, a harder cut, a better screen.

By March, this could be a Michigan team that is not just content to be in the field, but capable of doing some damage.

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn

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