January 10, 2021 

Naz Hillmon and Michigan are making an early statement

The 8-0 Wolverines are showing the Big Ten — and the rest of the country — that they're for real

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Credit: Michigan Photography/Eric Bronson

Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico has already admitted that COVID-19 has changed the day-to-day operations for her team in Ann Arbor, particularly after two of its December contests against Illinois and Penn State were postponed.

You’d be hard pressed to find a way that these changes have hindered the success of Barnes Arico’s Wolverines, who sit atop the Big Ten standings with a perfect 8-0 overall record after winning their first three conference matchups. It’s the program’s best start and fifth-longest winning streak in school history.

“It’s been incredible, I just think that speaks to the character of our kids in the program,” said Barnes Arico.

Michigan has only played one game decided by single-digits, already winning three contests by over 30 points. The team has already avenged two losses from last year’s 21-11 campaign with a win at Notre Dame and, more impressively, at No. 15 Northwestern by 21.

Leading the charge for Michigan has been two-time All-Big Ten First Team selection Naz Hillmon, the junior forward who has more than lived up to the coaches’ Preseason Big Ten Co-Player of the Year selection.

Hillmon has improved her points per game average every year she’s played, from 13.1 her freshman season, to 17.4 last year and a whopping 25.9 this season, good for second in the Big Ten. She’s also playing with remarkable efficiency, connecting on her field goal attempts at a career-high 65.8% clip.

“I definitely came into this season wanting to extend my game and be an instrumental part of the team and continue to improve year-to-year,” said Hillmon. “But right now, I’m taking it game-by-game, doing anything that I can to help us win.”

An undersized post at 6-foot-2, Hillmon consistently outworks lengthier players with her effort and strength. She leads the conference in rebounding at 11.4 per game after collecting a career-high 22 boards, including 13 offensive, in a narrow win over Nebraska on Thursday.

“Coach really preaches that rebounds are what wins and loses games… really trying to get in there, get us extra possessions and take away theirs,” Hillmon said.

The Cleveland native’s style of play is similar to that of former conference Player of the Year Megan Gustafson, who currently plays in the WNBA for the Dallas Wings. According to Barnes Arico, Hillmon has hopes of ultimately achieving the same fate.

“[Hillmon]’s been in the weight room, she’s been working on the face-up game, she’s trying to improve her game to help Michigan win a championship and make herself a professional basketball player. She’s done a heck of a job,” said Barnes Arico.

The Wolverines’ improvement has not been limited to just Hillmon — collectively, Michigan entered Thursday’s game scoring 87.9 ppg, ranked tenth in the nation. Several players have taken significant steps forward in one or more statistical categories.

Nebraska transfer Leigha Brown has thrived in the Michigan starting lineup, averaging a career high 19.7 ppg. Her versatility and shooting range at 6-foot-1 has proved to be a vital complement to Hillmon, who rarely attempts field goals from outside of the paint.

Senior Hailey Brown is tallying career high in scoring and shooting, adding 10 points per game at a 49% rate. Graduate student Akienreh Johnson, granted a late waiver by the NCAA to remain with the Wolverines for an additional season, is also adding 10 points. Junior point guard Amy Dilk is posting career bests in rebounding and continues to engineer the team’s ball movement by dishing out 4.5 assists per game.

“They’ve been in the gym since the summer,” Hillmon said of her supporting cast. “I think that we’ve had a mindset that we didn’t know when basketball would start, but we knew that we’d have it again. I just think that we’re competitors like that, if we see one teammate going to the gym we want to hop in there with them. It’s just very important to our team to be able to contribute.”

Given all of the disruptions and postponements to the college basketball season imposed by the pandemic, Barnes Arico admitted that she takes extra satisfaction that this group of players is the longest team in program history to remain undefeated.

“What better team to have that first accomplishment than this group of young women, that have had to handle so many things thrown in their direction, had to handle a year in 2020 that we’re still handling now,” she said. “Just their maturity and their experience and their commitment to this university and our program is just absolutely wonderful and I’m so proud that they get to be the first team that’s 8-0.”

Michigan’s schedule picks up considerably in mid-January, as it plays a four-game stretch highlighted by two games against 8-1 Michigan State as well as a road meeting with 6-0 Ohio State. February features a four-game stretch with matchups against Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State. These games should give the rest of the league, and NCAA, a true indication of just how deep the Wolverines can go in the postseason.

For now, as Hillmon goes, so do the Maize and Blue. And so far, nobody has been able to stop them.

Written by Ben Rosof

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