Kim Barnes Arico sees vision of Michigan women's basketball become reality
When Kim Barnes Arico left St. John’s as head coach, when she essentially left home and that comfort zone for Michigan and its limited brand in women’s college basketball, it was a leap of faith based on little more than belief in the possibilities of building something in Ann Arbor.
That was in the fall of 2012 after 10 seasons at St. John’s where Barnes Arico, a Long Island native and at that point an East Coast lifer, was a two-time Big East Coach of the Year and had led the Red Storm to a Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament appearance earlier that year.
Now, in her ninth season at Michigan, she has taken the program to its first Sweet 16 appearance with a dominant 70-55 upset of Tennessee on Tuesday. The No. 6 seed Wolverines (16-5) will play Baylor (27-2), a No. 2 seed, on Saturday on ABC at 3 p.m. for a chance to advance to the Elite 8.
“This is a level that a lot of coaches go through their whole entire career and never get there,” Barnes Arico said. “I feel so fortunate that we were able to do it at St. John's and now to be able to do it at Michigan is absolutely incredible.”
Barnes Arico has researched college basketball coaching and who has made it this far in the tournament, and absent are so many of the coaches she has respected. She has been working to build Michigan into a consistently strong program and has never had a season, until this one shortened by COVID-19-related pauses, with fewer than 20 wins. The Wolverines, snubbed by the NCAA Tournament in 2017, won the WNIT that year and this is the fourth time she has led them to the NCAA Tournament, including the last three. Before her arrival, Michigan had made the tournament five times.
Along the way, she has recruited well, bringing in difference makers like Katelynn Flaherty, the program’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time All-Big Ten first-team selection (2016-2018), and now Naz Hillmon, the program’s most decorated player who most recently has been named the Big Ten’s Player of the Year and AP All-American second team. She also is a three-time All-Big Ten first teamer.
“I left St. John’s because I believed in Michigan and I believed we could create something special there,” Barnes Arico said Tuesday night. “They had done it in every other sport — softball is great and football is great and men’s basketball was great and gymnastics and field hockey, tennis, you could go on and on. Every sport there is great, except women’s basketball didn’t have that history and tradition.
“That pulled me there. I left everything I knew on the East coast, I left my parents — my mom’s still crying about her grandbabies being taken from her — I left my family that came to every game, I left my life because I believed in Michigan. I believed we could do something special here. I could have that belief and never accomplish that unless I was able to convince players that really had that same vision and that same belief that they could come and make a difference. I was fortunate my first year to inherit an experienced team that went to the tournament. From there we just continued to build and build and build and get special players and now, (I told them), ‘You guys are reaping some of the benefits of the people who came before you, so we must being thankful to our Michigan alums. This is for them.’”
While in the NCAA Tournament bubble in San Antonio, Barnes Arico and her players have had a lot of time to talk about the program, where it was and how high it can climb. They discussed those who laid the foundation and how it’s their responsibility to carry it forward and build. Emerging from the second round for the first time was just another step.
“It’s just great for our university, it’s great for the state of Michigan,” Barnes Arico said, “it’s great for the little kids growing up in Michigan and it’s great for the rest of the country to see that Michigan is not only a football and men’s basketball school, but it’s also a women’s basketball school.”