Michigan women’s basketball is about to be famous by association: The Wolverines are Iowa’s next opponent as Caitlin Clark stands on the precipice of breaking the NCAA scoring record in Iowa City.
While Clark and the Hawkeyes will (deservedly) command attention this week ahead of the Thursday showdown, U-M remains on the NCAA Tournament bubble as mid-February arrives. Here’s a check-in on Kim Barnes Arico’s program in the stretch run of the regular season:
The Big Ten women’s basketball picture
A year after tying their record by sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten remains one of the nation’s strongest conferences. Seven teams are in the NCAA Tournament field as of the latest ESPN bracketology, including three of the nation’s elite programs in Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana.
Despite the hype, Iowa is not currently at the top of the conference. That distinction belongs to Ohio State, whose only Big Ten loss so far this season came to Michigan. The Buckeyes have won 11 in a row, paced by Jacy Sheldon and Cotie McMahon, and the regular-season finale against the Hawkeyes on March 3 could decide the conference.
Caitlin Clark and Iowa follow with a Big Ten record marred by losses in Columbus and Lincoln. Clark has transcended women’s college basketball to become a household name, and for good reason. She’s eight points from breaking the NCAA women’s basketball scoring record, a feat which she will almost certainly achieve against Michigan. Her perimeter shooting is near-unstoppable, and she’s must-watch TV.
Indiana is the Big Ten’s third contender, though they’ve lost to Iowa and Ohio State. They are led by a familiar name — post Mackenzie Holmes — who just set the IU scoring record. A Feb. 22 showdown with the Hawkeyes at Assembly Hall is their biggest opportunity to shake up the conference race.
Everyone else is a tier behind (or more). Nebraska separated itself from the pack by winning in Ann Arbor and upsetting Iowa at home. Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan and Maryland are all within a game of each other, while the remaining six programs are below .500 in Big Ten play. Rutgers is at the bottom of the Big Ten at 1-12.
The Wolverines have five regular-season games remaining — at Iowa, vs. Michigan State, at Northwestern, at Ohio State and vs. Purdue. Finishing in the top four to secure a Big Ten Tournament double bye is technically feasible but highly unlikely given the schedule.
Michigan and the NCAA Tournament picture
Despite last week’s home loss to on-the-bubble Nebraska, the Wolverines remain one of the last four in, per ESPN’s latest bracketology. They are 50th in the NET Rankings, which are used in team to evaluate teams during the NCAA Tournament selection process.
U-M is 1-2 in games against NET 1-25 teams, with the home win over Ohio State the highlight. The Wolverines are 3-3 against NET 26-50 teams.
Marring the resume are four losses to NET 51-100 teams — home to Illinois, at a neutral site against Florida, at a neutral site against Ole Miss and at Toledo.
The remainder of the regular season has two very winnable games and three very difficult ones. The goal: Don’t lose to Purdue or at Northwestern and win one of the other three — at Iowa, at Ohio State or versus Michigan State. On paper, that MSU game (a Maize Out on Sunday, Feb. 18) is the best bet.
Pair a 3-2 finish with an opening-round win in the Big Ten Tournament, and U-M should be relatively comfortable in hearing its name called on Selection Sunday. Going o-fer against the Hawkeyes, Buckeyes and Spartans would likely put the onus on the Big Ten Tournament showing.
A quick note on the future of Michigan basketball
Michigan basketball’s incoming class features two McDonald’s All-Americans: Syla Swords and Olivia Olson. They join Mila Holloway, Te’Yala Delfosse and Aaiyanna Dunbar in a class ESPN ranks among the best in the nation.