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Michigan women's basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico said her players want to play the best and they'll have that opportunity against Notre Dame in November. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News

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Ann Arbor — Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico has tunnel vision when it comes to her program. Her focus is on where it needs to go next, not from where it has come.

But sometimes she gets nudged to look at the big picture, a reminder of what she has accomplished as she enters her eighth season as head coach. Barnes Arico is the winningest coach in Michigan program history and the only one to have produced seven 20-win seasons.

Coming off a 22-12 record and second-round NCAA Tournament appearance, she enters this season needing to fill big shoes. Barnes Arico must replace Hallie Thome, the program’s second all-time leading scorer (2,081 points), and feisty Nicole Munger (1,010 points), who was the heart and soul of last year’s team.

There’s something, though, that Barnes Arico really likes about this team through 14 practices and that “vibe” she described starts with sophomore Naz Hillmon. As a freshman, Hillmon averaged 13.1 points a game and was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the league’s Sixth Player of the Year and a first-team selection.

But there’s more. This is a young but talented group. Of the 12 women on the roster, there are three freshmen and five sophomores. Akienreh Johnson and Kayla Robbins are the only seniors. While Hillmon is the rising star, 6-foot-4 freshman Izabel Varejao, who Barnes Arico said most certainly will get significant playing time this season, said the team is void of cliques.

“Everybody likes each other,” Varejao said Wednesday at the team's media day. “We are always there for each other.”

The players said the team chemistry is established and evident.

“I really think this team is special just in terms of our attitude,” Robbins said. “There’s no one on this team who ever comes in and doesn’t want to get better each day. That’s really special seeing that 100 percent of the team, not 90, not 85 percent, is fully in. They fully want to get better for the team.”

The program has gotten better and is thriving under Barnes Arico’s guidance, but she rarely looks back, keeping her focus on where Michigan must take its next step.

“Sometimes I think as a coach you never really reflect on, ‘OK, where was the program when you got here and where is the program now and what are the next steps in terms of where we want to take the program,’ because you’re always worried about the moment and, 'OK, what are we going to do today?'” Barnes Arico said. “We’ve got to win the game today, we’ve got to win the game tomorrow but never really seeing where the program has come and where we want to take the program.”

That’s when she gets an assist from Sarah VanMetre, who handles athletic communications for the program.

“She always reminds me of that every time I’m in the struggle,” Barnes Arico said. “She’ll pile up a stack of papers on my desk and say, ‘OK, this is eight years ago, this is five years ago, this is three years ago.’”

Coaches are never satisfied and always set the bar higher year after year. Barnes Arico is no different and has bigger goals, loftier goals, but she’s keeping those to herself.

After every season, she and her staff evaluate and pinpoint priorities of what needs to be improved. After getting snubbed by the NCAA Tournament in 2016-2017, the Wolverines went on to win the WNIT and focused on adding tougher opponents to strengthen the team's schedule the following season to be appealing to the selection committee.

“The next step is we need to get signature wins,” Barnes Arico said, explaining the process of breaking down a season and determining what’s next. “Well what are signature wins, and how are we going to get signature wins? And that was an important piece and that’s how we got back to the (NCAA) Tournament. We’ve gotten back to the tournament the last couple years, 'OK, how do we take the next steps? What are the next steps.’”

The next step involves an aggressive schedule and getting more of those signature wins to avoid a seed that sends Michigan to the home court of a top team in the early round games.

An example of following through is scheduling Notre Dame at Crisler Center on Nov. 23. The Irish were national championship runners-up this past season, a year after winning the national title. Barnes Arico said this also helps draw recruits to Michigan.

“(It’s) an opportunity to play against the best and to compete against the best,” she said. “When we make our schedule, we want to make sure we have some of the best teams in the country on our schedule.

“Our kids want to play against Notre Dame. To test yourself against the best is kinda what it’s all about.”

The Wolverines will travel to Connecticut in late December to play in the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase and have three games — against Syracuse, Michigan State and Maryland — that will be televised on ESPN or ESPN2.

“That speaks volumes and shows to the rest of the world, ‘Hey, Michigan women’s basketball is coming on and Michigan women’s basketball is a team we want to see on TV,’” Barnes Arico said. “It’s a program filled with players that we want the rest of the nation to see, and that’s really important because I think it plays into the NCAA Tournament.”

There was a time Barnes Arico was angry that Michigan was ignored by television, especially when Katelynn Flaherty was on her way to becoming the program’s all-time leading scorer. This is another significant step, and next year the goal will be more national television coverage.

“Now that we do have an opportunity, the rest of the country, the television networks, the people that are choosing these events are really saying, ‘Wow, Michigan’s women’s basketball has made some tremendous strides as well as has some tremendous players we really want to showcase,’” Barnes Arico said. “It’s an exciting time. People are recognizing us.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis

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