August 15, 2023 

State of the Program: Michigan relying on key returners and three transfers for success in 2023-24

New faces in Ann Arbor look to continue Wolverines' remarkable streak of consistency

Despite losing Naz Hillmon entering the 2022-23 season, the Michigan Wolverines had the 11th-best field goal percentage in the country, won over 20 games for the 10th time in the 11 seasons with Kim Barnes Arico leading the program and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

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In some areas, the success shouldn’t have come as a surprise – Leigha Brown and Emily Kiser had demonstrated that they could score the basketball at a high level. However, other aspects of this past year’s team, like the ability of Brown to step into the point guard role and the significant development of Laila Phelia, helped Michigan finish in the top five of the Big Ten once again.

Brown’s transition to the role of point guard stood out most notably. Having mostly played off the ball in the first four years of her career, Michigan needed her to run the offense. Barnes Arico already had some experience asking a player to make a similar move; the program’s all-time leading scorer Katelynn Flaherty had never played the point guard position either until her final season in Ann Arbor.

“We sat down with Leigha, and we showed her what that was really going to look like and what kind of actions we could really run for her with the ball in her hand,” Barnes Arico told The Next. “For her, it was about finding the balance of when do I have to score? When can I get my teammates involved? I think Leigha’s such a tremendous passer; she just sees the game at another level and is such a great, great competitor that the transition for her was really smooth. She was unbelievable, and I think the rest of the country had an opportunity to watch that last year.”

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In addition to Brown, Kiser’s emergence as a force down low – she averaged 15.9 points and 7.1 rebounds – also helped ease the loss of Hillmon. For a player who’d waited in the wings for her chance and battled through injuries, the success of Kiser felt even more satisfying for her head coach.

“Those are the stories that, as a coach, just really warm your heart and part of the reason that I do this, for stories like that and for people like that,” Barnes Arico said. “And I think it’s such a great example for the younger kids that are watching to hear about Emily’s story and to watch Emily’s progression, and it was really special.”

The Wolverines didn’t necessarily have any major conference wins last season; Michigan was 0-7 against the four teams that finished ahead of them in the standings. But in taking care of business in the rest of conference play, Michigan positioned itself for another single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament, probably all anyone could’ve hoped for at the start of the season.

“Anytime you lost a player that had that kind of impact on a program, you always wonder what the next year will be,” Barnes Arico said of the departure of Hillmon. “But I thought that made our team have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and have something to prove because we went from finishing in the Elite Eight in a five-point game to go to the Final Four to then, in some publications, not being ranked in the preseason, and I think that was really motivation for our returners.”

2022-23 record: 23-10 (11-7 Big Ten)

Big Ten finish: 5th (lost to LSU, 66-42, in NCAA Tournament second round)

Notable wins: vs. Baylor (84-75), @ Miami FL (76-64), vs. UNC (76-68), @ Purdue (80-59), vs. Illinois (74-57), vs. UNLV (71-59)

Departures: Leigha Brown (WNBA), Emily Kiser (graduation), Izabel Varejão (transferring to Syracuse), Maddie Nolan (transferring to Colorado), Michelle Sidor (transferring to DePaul), Kate Clarke (transferring to DePaul), Ari Wiggins (transferring to Butler).

Additions: Elissa Brett (transferring from Bowling Green), Lauren Hansen (transferring from Missouri), Taylor Williams (transferring from Western Michigan), Macy Brown (first-year), Katy Eidle (first-year), Taylor Woodson (first-year).

Key returners: Laila Phelia, Jordan Hobbs, Cameron Williams

One of the reasons Michigan avoided a significant drop off last season stemmed from the returns of several key veteran players: Brown, Kiser and Maddie Nolan, in particular. Able to return four of the starting five, that continuity made the transition smoother than it otherwise could’ve been.

In 2023-24, things will look a bit different for the maize and blue. The Wolverines welcome three transfers into the mix, to go along with Phelia, Cameron Williams and Jordan Hobbs.

For Barnes Arico, it’s a bit of a different approach to roster building after having a steady stream of experienced players in her system.

Lauren Hansen, a point guard from Missouri (who also shares Long Island ties with her head coach), brings a competitive fire to the team, Barnes Arico said. She looks to slot into the role Brown occupied last year as the floor general. In addition, Elissa Brett’s 3-point shooting ability will help replace the void created by the departures of Nolan and Kiser – she knocked down 92 3s last season, the 14th most (out of 4,699 players) in the country. Finally, Taylor Williams should command the glass; Barnes Arico said she’s one of the most athletic kids she has on the roster.

“I’m super pumped about our three grad transfers,” Barnes Arico said. “This is the first time for me in a long time that we’re not going to have that type of experience returning. … They’ve been three great kids, working exceptionally hard and just trying to figure out how we do things at Michigan.”

In addition, expect to see Phelia continue to take on an even more prominent role on the team. From her freshman season to last year, Phelia saw nearly an eight-point-per-game increase in her scoring. Now a junior, Barnes Arico has high hopes for what she’ll be able to do this coming season.

This summer, Phelia competed in the FIBA AmeriCup, more experience that will likely serve her well moving forward.

“I think she is just going to learn so much from that role and continue to improve,” Barnes Arico said of her guard having the opportunity to compete on an international stage. “She’s such a worker. She’s so determined to be great, and she’s ready for the next steps and to be the leader of our team.”

Williams and Hobbs should also take on that leadership role. Williams started every game for Michigan last season. A former five-star recruit out of Chicago, Barnes Arico said there’s no reason why she can’t average a double-double. Meanwhile, Hobbs brings that off-ball scoring ability that should serve as a complement to Phelia and Hansen.

Michigan surely has the talent to compete for a spot at the top of the conference once again this coming season. With so many new players coming in, it might take time for everyone to gel. Barnes Arico hopes the team’s upcoming international trip to Italy helps to alleviate some of those early growing pains.

The way Barnes Arico went about constructing her team for 2023-24 might look a little bit different than it has in recent years but expect to see the Wolverines battling for strong seeding in the NCAA Tournament once again in 2024.

“It’s a different role than we’ve been accustomed to, but I think we’re really excited about the challenge,” Barnes Arico said. “I think we’re really excited to see where this year is going to go.”

For further offseason reading on Big Ten women’s basketball, check out Eric Rynston-Lobel’s full State of the Program series.

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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