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January 17, 2014
Reid This: It's time to start paying attention to U-M
If you haven't been paying attention to the Michigan women's basketball team, it might be time to start.
In her first year as head coach, Kim Barnes Arico led Michigan to a program-record 22 wins its first trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2001. That team was led by a deep cast of senior starters who scored a whopping 1,666 of the teams 1,984 points on the season (84.0 percent).
That was the easy part. Barnes Arico knew 2014 would be the uphill battle toward rebuilding the roster and establish a winning culture inside a program that had recorded just 13 seasons with a record above .500 since its inaugural year 1973-74.
So when the Wolverines dropped their first game of the season, a 63-52 decision to Bowling Green in the first round of the Iona Tournament in New York, it was disappointing - and yet not all that surprising.
But then a funny thing happened. Although the Wolverines had just one player on the roster who had started any games the previous season, they found a rhythm and a voice.
The day after that loss to the Falcons, junior forward Cyesha Goree, who had logged all of 31 total minutes in her two previous seasons with the team, called for the ball with the clocking meandering toward 00:00. She hit a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to send the game to overtime, where Michigan won 73-71.
Stars emerged. Junior Shannon Smith, who transferred to Michigan after winning a national championship at Trinity Valley Community College last season, turned into a scoring machine, averaging a team-high 14.5 points a game.
Freshman point guard Siera Thompson, who is generally listed at 5-7, gained the confidence to take advantage of her slashing skills, and is now averaging 13.8 points, 3.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game.
Goree and fifth-year senior center Val Driscoll transformed themselves from bench staples to one of the most dynamic one-two-punch post presences in the Big ten.
Sophomore Madison Ristovski got over the tentativeness that plagued her offensive game last year to become a reliable scoring threat, averaging 9.6 points per game.
And all of a sudden, a team that many pundits pegged as the last-place team in the Big Ten is playing like it can seriously contend for a conference championship. The first conference championship in program history.
At 12-5 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten, the Wolverines have already proved the doubters wrong.
In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, Michigan has already knocked off Ohio State, 64-49, in Columbus and travelled to West Lafayette and came away with an upset of No. 22 Purdue, 65-49.
Even in their one conference loss, the Wolverines were impressive, nearly knocking off Michigan State at Crisler Arena before falling, 79-72.
Former Michigan coach Kevin Borseth, like former Michigan men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker, did an admirable job of laying a foundation for a program that had fallen on hard times.
Barnes Arico, like Michigan men's basketball coach John Beilein, has injected a winning culture that has helped bring the program to a new, exciting level.
Although she is great with the X's and O's, Barnes Arico's best quality, so far, has been her ability to make players believe in themselves and buy into the program.
The Wolverines may not win a Big Ten title this year. They may not reach the Final Four.
But there is a special momentum building around this program right now, and it's a young team growing into a winner in front of the fans' eyes.