ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — After a quarterfinal Big Ten Tournament exit and a 2-4 record over the last six games, there is one big question about Michigan as March Madness arrives: Can the team that knocked off Baylor and Indiana this season compete in the postseason when it matters?
The answer will come this weekend as the third-seeded Wolverines (22-6) face No. 14 American in a Wichita Region first-round game in Ann Arbor on Saturday. No. 6 seed BYU plays No. 11 Villanova in the early game.
“Just putting down that weight of those losses and having fun,” guard Danielle Rauch said of the opener. “Just refocusing on that, getting back to who we were.”
Michigan had seven wins over AP Top 25 teams in the regular season and will look to continue that success in the NCAA Tournament. Patriot League champion American is in the tournament for the third time in program history and the first time since 2018.
The Eagles’ interior defense will pose a challenge to the Wolverines’ post-heavy attack, which is headlined by All-American forward Naz Hillmon. She averages 21 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, and has capitalized on mismatches in the paint all season, something that will be crucial for Michigan on Saturday.
“They really play from the inside out,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “They try to protect the paint. They throw a lot of numbers in the paint, which we face a lot during the course of the season anyway because of Naz, so I think it is something that we will be accustomed to.”
American forwards Lauren Stack and Taylor Brown both match Hillmon fairly well for size, but whether they are prepared to defend a player of her caliber for a complete game remains to be seen.
“Help,” joked American coach Megan Gebbia. “She’s a tremendous, tremendous inside presence, and you watch her throughout the season, and just seems like she continues to get better and better. It can’t be a one-man show. You can’t have just one person try to guard her; we’ll do different things.”
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During BYU’s preparation for their game against Villanova, guard Teagan Graham recognized a pattern while watching video of the Wildcats.
“It’s kind of a good matchup in that way because they play a predominantly motion offense and so do we,” Graham said. “I feel like it’s going to be an interesting matchup to see which team sticks to their game plan, which team has better principles with defensive motion guarding.
Graham has been the glue in that motion offense for the Cougars, averaging 10 points a game and helping to feed the ball to some of the team’s top scorers, like guards Paisley Harding and Shaylee Gonzales, who average 17 and 18.7 points per game, respectively.
The similarities between the two teams weren’t lost on the Wildcats, either.
“When we were watching film, we definitely took time to notice the similarities,” Villanova forward Brianna Herlihy said. “We’re two teams that like to run a lot of half-court offense, so I think it’ll be interesting to see the matchup and see how we match up with them. They’re very deliberate and not incredibly quick in what they do, but we kind of try to play the same way, so I think it should be interesting to see that.”
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