UM women's hoops have big expectations

Geoff Robinson
Special to The Detroit News

With a wealth of experience and some talented freshmen set to play a big role this season, the Michigan women's basketball team is ready to push for a return to the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolverines made the Big Dance in 2012 and returned in 2013 under first-year head coach Kim Barnes Arico. Although they missed out and were knocked out of the WNIT in the third round last season, Arico became the first coach in school history to put up back-to-back 20-win seasons.

Her early success has her team and people around the program excited about what the future holds.

"She's an excellent coach and she really knows the game well," said Nicole Elmblad, Michigan senior guard and captain. "Her passion and enthusiasm really just feeds us on the court and in practice every day."

Elmblad is one of four returning starters for the Wolverines, joining Cyesha Goree, Shannon Smith and Siera Thompson, all of whmo averaged double-digit points last season.

The pressure of returning four starters who also were the top four scorers isn't lost on Elmblad, but she said the team is just trying to play within itself and forget about the pressure.

"As seniors, there's this feeling that this is our last chance and we've got to give it everything we've got," she said. "But we don't have to get away from what we did to get to this point."

Said Arico: "Coming into this year, I feel as though they're anxious because they feel like they need to take that next step. I'm really just trying to get them to relax and realize they should just go out there and be (themselves)."

The experience for Michigan could play a big factor in how some key freshmen contribute this season, most notably Katelynn Flaherty, a top-20 recruit who is the highest nationally ranked high-school player to ever sign with the Wolverines.

Flaherty already has turned heads in Ann Arbor, putting up 17 points and six assists in her debut, a 74-39 exhibition win over Davenport University.

"Katelynn's a really great scorer and has the ability to shoot the ball exceptionally well," Arico said. "She has stepped in and been able to handle the transition pretty well. She's still trying to get used to having to play defense because she didn't have to do much of that in high school."

While Flaherty should provide a spark to the Wolverines lineup, it's Goree that could be one of the best players in the Big Ten.

The senior forward averaged 12.1 points and 9.3 rebounds last season, earning second team All-Big Ten honors.

According to her coach, it's her hustle and hard-nosed approach on the court that makes her a special player.

"She has a great passion for the game," Arico said. "She didn't get any minutes her freshman and sophomore year, but she continued to work and push. She dives on the floor, takes charges and does all the intangible things to help you win."

While the NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal for this team, a new kind of test could stand in its way in the form of newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, two powerhouse programs making their Big Ten debut this season. Maryland went 28-6 last season on its way to a Final Four appearance, and Rutgers is a perennial top-25 team with a Hall of Fame head coach.

But the challenge doesn't scare Arico, who spent 10 years as the head coach at St. John's, regularly squaring off against Rutgers' coach Vivian Stringer in the Big East.

"If I didn't know Maryland and Rutgers, I might be a little intimidated," she said. "We played Rutgers twice a year, and I've coached against Maryland, so I know both programs and coaches well."

The Wolverines will face some big challenges this year, but they know that winning in tough spots will only make the rewards that much sweeter.

"Last year, we fell just short," Elmblad said. "We're really going to have to stay together and build off of our chemistry. I'm excited to see where we can go this year and in the future."

Michigan kicks off its regular season with a home game against Detroit on Friday.

A closer look at Michigan

Coach: Kim Barnes Arico (42-25 at Michigan, 17-15 in the Big Ten)

Last season: 20-14, 8-8 Big Ten

Notable loss: Val Driscoll

Notable newcomers: Katelynn Flaherty, Jillian Dunston

Best nonconference game: Dec. 13 at Notre Dame

Outlook: With five Big Ten teams in the preseason top 25, the Wolverines have their work cut out for them. If they can snag sixth or seventh place with an above-.500 conference record, they should find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.

Geoff Robinson is a freelance writer.