Junior college transfer Shannon Smith leads U-M in scoring at 14.7 points per game. (Steve Perez / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — Michigan has been the surprise team of the Big Ten and one of the biggest surprises in all of women's basketball so far this season.
The Wolverines lost four starters and more than 90 percent of their scoring from last year's NCAA Tournament team that finished 22-11.
Instead of struggling this season, Michigan is 13-5 and owns a share of the Big Ten lead at 4-1, including a statement win at No. 22 Purdue last week. The Wolverines never trailed in a 65-49 victory despite playing in a hostile environment before 7,536 fans at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.
Michigan has averaged 72.7 points and ranks seventh nationally in 3-point shooting (40.3 percent) and 15th in field-goal percentage (46.5).
The Wolverines have a balanced lineup, led by junior college transfer Shannon Smith (14.7 points), freshman point guard Siera Thompson (14.1, 44-of-93 from 3-point range), junior forward Nicole Elmblad (12.4 points, 8.4 rebounds), 6-foot-3 junior center Cyesha Goree (11.6 points, 9.7 rebounds) and sophomore guard Madison Ristovski (9.8 points, team-high 64 assists).
Now, Michigan looks to gain respect from the pollsters and anaylsts. Purdue (13-5, 3-3) remains ranked No. 22, and the Wolverines are not in the top 25 or in Charlie Creme's NCAA tournament field in ESPN's Bracketology.
Creme has seven Big Ten teams in the field. Strangely enough Ohio State (12-9, 2-3) is among them despite getting crushed by the Wolverines, 64-49, Jan. 5 in Columbus.
The Wolverines will get another shot at Ohio State when they step on the Crisler Center court Thursday at 7 p.m.
When asked if she thought the Wolverines would be 13-5 and 4-1, Michigan second-year coach Kim Barnes-Arico replied: "Oh, my goodness no, but the kids are unbelievable. They have great chemistry, they're unselfish and they buy into working really hard. I think they are so naïve. They play the same way all the time and believe every time they walk on the court that they have an opportunity to win.
"They love playing. They love playing with each other. There's something special about them and there's something special about them being so young and innocent."
Ristovski scored 17 in the win over Purdue. Goree, who played a total of 25 minutes her first two seasons, had 14 rebounds, and Val Driscoll had four blocks.
"They're playing real well as a group," said Barnes-Arico of her guard trio of Thompson, Smith and Ristovski. "I think they're understanding each other better. They are getting better because of their experience and chemistry.
"Each one is a little different. Siera handles the ball for us and is great at knocking down threes and great at defending the other team's best player. Shannon is awesome in the open court and when she has the ball in her hand you always feel like she can make something happen. Madison is just consistent, and she's shown that again and again."
Goree has been the surprise of the bunch.
"Who would have expected Cyesha Goree to be what she has turned out to be?" Barnes-Arico said. "Cyesha has been incredible all year. We like to preach the Michigan way, and one of the things that we base our program is on toughness and doing things like winning the 50-50 balls, taking charges and making the hustle plays. Every time a kid does that in a game they get basketball stickers on their block ‘M.’ Right now there's a race to the finish, and Nicole Elmblad and Cyesha Goree each have about 30.
"Cyesha had four in one game against Purdue, and her ability to do the intangibles and to really sacrifice and sell out for the good of the team has been incredible. It's been the difference between good and great."