Dancing in March has become old hat for Kim Barnes Arico. She's coached in the extravaganza four times in her career previously with St. John's. Today, meanwhile, will mark only the sixth invitation to the NCAA Tournament for the Michigan women's basketball program when it meets Villanova at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2).
Arico is the first coach in school history to take the team to the tournament in an inaugural season.
Instant success and a reinvigorated attitude towards winning has made Michigan's rebirth that much sweeter for her.
"We're excited about the opportunity to be in the NCAA Tournament," she said. "We are thrilled. We never take it for granted because the team has worked extremely hard to get here."
Michigan continues to play this season because of its new hire. Arico was rising in the coaching ranks during her tenure at St. John's, and Michigan saw the next leader of its program. The former two-time Big East Coach of the Year has every intention of raising the bar for the Wolverines, teaching them that they, too, can reach a Sweet 16 as she did in 2012.
The Wolverines she leads this season include three seniors averaging double figures. Kate Thompson (14.5 points per game), Rachel Sheffer (12.7), and Jenny Ryan (10.1) all are counted upon to provide the bulk of the offense, but it's their leadership and defensive intensity on the other end of the floor that Arico knows she can trust. Ryan has stolen the ball 60 times this season. Whether or not the defense has been the impetus for this team to reach the postseason again, Ryan admires her coach's relentless focus.
"I think we've all improved in our senior year in ways that we never thought were possible," she said. "I think just by being in the NCAA Tournament, it speaks to both her commitment to us and us buying into her system. I can't speak to the number of hours she spent getting to know us on a personal and on a basketball level. I can't thank her enough for what she's done for us, and I know our senior class has loved every minute of it."
Arico and her team are not satisfied just getting to the tournament again after qualifying last season for the first time sine 2001. Winning a game is the new priority. In order to get to that level, Michigan must take out a hot-shooting Villanova team that sets screens and shoots the three at an efficient 33.1 percent. Michigan, itself a good three-point-shooting team at 34.7 percent, defends outside shooting by only allowing opponents to make 29.9 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Arico has faced the Wildcats many times in the Big East, and her inside knowledge may keep the Wolverines' dancing shoes on.
"It took me a long time at St. John's to be able to beat them and to be able to stop them," she admitted. "A lot of times in the tournament, [Nova coach] Harry Peretta kind of catches teams off guard because people aren't really prepared to defend what he does. It definitely helps that I've been able to play against him for the last 10 years. I know him pretty well and I know his system pretty well, too."
Trust now exists between Arico and her players, too. Thompson sees new heights for the program. Soon enough, dancing will also become expected in Ann Arbor.