Connor Brennan: Wolverines are running out of opportunities
The life of a collegiate athletic program is one of continuous overhaul. At the end of every season, coaches move on, seniors graduate and a fresh flock of wide-eyed freshmen join the team.
Naturally, new seasons always bring about change and unknowns. Coming into the 2018-19 women’s basketball season, programs in the Big Ten Conference had seemingly experienced more change and featured more unknowns than most other leagues around the country. Five of the Big Ten’s top seven leading scorers from last season departed — Michigan point guard Katelynn Flaherty being third on that list. To put it simply, the conference was ripe for the taking.
Despite losing Flaherty and senior Jillian Dunston, it was not a far-fetched notion that the Wolverines — who finished sixth in the conference and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament — could ascend to bigger and better things this season.
Seniors Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger were set to take over the leadership roles of Flaherty and Dunston, both on and off the court. A stellar recruiting class featuring the likes of point guard Amy Dilk and forward Naz Hillmon supplemented a young, but talented roster. This was a reload, the theory went, not a rebuild.
Through 17 games, only a few of those premises have come to fruition.
Teams in the Big Ten Conference clearly underwent some overhaul, but the narrative coming into the season was exaggerated. The conference this season is deeper than first thought and features a number of quality teams. In fact, for the first time since the 2014-15 season, the AP Top 25 includes six Big Ten programs — most notably No. 9 Maryland, No. 17 Michigan State and No. 20 Rutgers, who currently sit atop the Big Ten standings.
Though Thome and Munger have been everything they were chalked up to be as leaders, they have struggled at times with injury and inconsistency. Their offensive output hasn’t been able to replace Flaherty’s from a season ago on a clear one-to-one basis, but then again it may have been naive to think it could.
To a similar extent, this highly-touted freshman class has shown signs of brilliance, but as expected, has also shown signs of inexperience. Dilk and Hillmon, specifically, have been thrust into prominent roles. While this will undoubtedly serve them well in the future, with the ball-handling duties placed on Dilk’s shoulders, she has been error-prone.
After a 19-point outing against Washington, in which she shot 7-11 from the field, Dilk accounted for nine turnovers and shot 14.2 percent in the next two games — signs of improvement followed by clear growing pains.
Michigan’s up and down performances this season have culminated in an overall record of 11-6 and a 2-3 record in the Big Ten — good for sixth place thus far. According to multiple projections, the Wolverines aren’t slated to make the NCAA Tournament this season. At this point last year, Michigan was 15-4 and in the midst of a six-game win streak against Big Ten opponents.
The depth of the Big Ten affords Michigan a few more notable opportunities to make its case for the tournament but those chances are dwindling. Thursday’s trip to take on Megan Gustafson and the No. 22 Iowa Hawkeyes is the start of a five-game run which includes four ranked opponents. If Michigan is to save its season, it will come down to the results of this stretch.
The Wolverines have alternated between success and defeat in their five games against Big Ten opponents thus far. They can no longer afford such deviations.
While they challenged themselves out of conference, the results of those games weren’t good enough to compensate for lackluster performances in the Big Ten.
So no, it’s not time to press the panic button on Michigan’s season, but there is a figurative finger hovering over it. The coming weeks decide everything.
Connor Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ConnrBrennan.