Big Ten Women's Basketball Preview: No. 4 Michigan

Naz Hillmon.

This is the ninth of an ongoing series of previews for all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-22 season. This is the seventh full preview of one team, and focuses on my projected No. 4 team in the conference.

Here is last week’s preview of No. 5 Northwestern

For years, Michigan women’s basketball was a laughing stock. Up until 1996, there was not a single head coach that ended a tenure with the Wolverines with a winning record. Then, Sue Guevara helped at least somewhat turn it around before Cheryl Burnett took over in 2003 and completely thwarted any progress that was previously made.

Kevin Borseth brought Michigan back to a team that at least won more than it lost, but current head coach Kim Barnes Arico has taken the Wolverines to a place they have never been before.

Michigan went to its first ever Sweet 16 in 2021, taking down No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast and upsetting No. 3 Tennessee as a six-seed before becoming oh so close to beating No. 2 Baylor before falling 78-75 in overtime.

This was a wonderful run for a program that was stuck in the mud for so long, and there’s reason to think that Michigan can make it right back again this season. What’s that reason? Well, she has a name.

If you are unfamiliar with Naz Hillmon, allow me to introduce you. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year finished her third collegiate season with the seventh-most points and 15th-most rebounds of any player in the NCAA. She shot 62.3 percent from the field, 16th in the country, and set a Michigan program record (men’s or women’s) with 50 points against Ohio State, a game that the Wolverines lost somehow.

Hillmon does all of this despite standing at 6-2, which is relatively short for a forward that is so reliant on working around the basket. It simply does not matter. Hillmon’s crafty post moves, smart game sense and pure will to get to the ball and score on you is often unstoppable regardless of the size or talent of her opponent.

There is something special about watching Hillmon. She doesn’t fit into the modern game: saying she can’t shoot from deep would be wrong because she has only shot from three one time in 2,598 minutes of collegiate ball (she missed). But my question to you, reader, is this: Who the hell needs to shoot threes when you can avoid the risk of missing?

Yeah Hillmon misses sometimes, but about two-thirds of her shots go in, and her 9.0 two-point makes per game last year was tops in the NCAA. Hillmon is a relic of a game that feels lost, and somehow she fits perfectly. There is no one that does what Naz Hillmon does, at least not in the way and with the efficiency in which she does it.

Hillmon has been a force of nature all three seasons she has been with Michigan, but she has somehow found a way to improve every year. Her scoring and rebounding have continued to improve and her field goal percentage has remained in an incredibly similar place throughout it all. If she improves again as a senior, the sky is the limit for the Wolverines in 2021-22.

It would be very unfair to say that Michigan will be a one-player team this year, though. Leigha Brown transferred over from Nebraska last offseason and made a huge impact, averaging 18.2 points per game which ranked sixth in the conference. Brown also does most of her work inside the arc, but has a great mid-range game that helps to avoid spacing issues.

Hillmon is a force of nature, but Brown is pivotal for the Wolverines’ success, as she takes some of the attention away and is a tremendous scorer in her own right. Amy Dilk is a player that I always find to be better than her stats would represent. She contributes in a variety of ways, but needs to improve her shooting, which sat at 31.8 percent overall and 28.6 percent from three.

Past that trio, Maddie Nolan has been a solid shooter and should be able to contribute more after the departures the Wolverines have faced in the offseason. Speaking of those departures…

Losing two starters hurts, there’s no denying that. Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown were, at the least, strong glue pieces that added complimentary scoring to what Hillmon and Leigha Brown put up. But more than that, Johnson was an excellent additional rebounder, while Hailey Brown was the best perimeter weapon in the starting lineup.

Nolan will have to pick up the slack when it comes to three-point threats, something that Michigan mostly lacked in 2020-21 (10th in the Big Ten in both three-point makes and three-point percentage.)

Depth is a concern for the Wolverines, but that is where the incoming freshman class should come into play.

Laila Phelia, Ari Wiggins and Jordan Hobbs give Michigan a trio of guards who were able to score the ball at will in high school. Phelia is a top-30 player via ESPN, and Wiggins is the same via Prospects Nation, so the expectations for both of them should be high.

Hobbs might take a little longer, but her height and rebounding ability as a guard could be something utilized from Day One, and while Taylor Gibson might not come into the picture as much right away, learning from Naz Hillmon should absolutely help her development.

If even one of Hobbs, Phelia or Wiggins becomes a consistent scorer in their first year, Michigan has a lineup destined for success. The Wolverines are in a very similar place with Northwestern when I look at both rosters, but I trust the reigning conference Player of the Year to push them over the hump.

Michigan has the pieces to get right back to the Sweet 16, but seems just a tad short of a team ready to compete for a conference title. But would I bet against Hillmon proving me wrong? Absolutely not.

Coming down to the wire. Next week, we will look at the No. 3 ranked team for the Big Ten preview. Before that, I will have a new post on a random topic for you on Thursday.

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