Big Ten women’s basketball scenarios: Michigan’s path to a title

Thursday should be one of the most exciting nights in Michigan women’s basketball history. Consider this trifecta: The Wolverines host their rival…while honoring a record-setting senior class…with a shot to get within one victory of a Big Ten title.

Yeah, a lot is happening at Crisler Center as Michigan hosts Michigan State (6 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network).

Let’s start with some housekeeping. Michigan, after beating Maryland on Sunday, moved into first place in the Big Ten standings with a 12-3 conference record. Not all Big Ten teams will play the same number of games, but the league prepared for that. If a team leads in both win percentage and the “games ahead/games back” method, it will be declared the sole regular-season champion.

Michigan, with wins over the Spartans and at Iowa on Sunday, would be that team. It would be the program’s first-ever Big Ten title.

Iowa, Maryland, and Ohio State, all of which are 12-4, also have a chance at claiming the trophy. (This nifty scenario generator is helpful for figuring out the complete order of the standings.) Michigan swept both Maryland and Ohio State this season.

The Wolverines could lose one of their remaining two games — but not both — and still win the Big Ten. They’d need some help, however.

For Michigan to survive losing to Iowa, the Hawkeyes would need to lose at Rutgers on Thursday. Rutgers is 2-13 in the Big Ten. Iowa, like Michigan, controls its own destiny. The Hawkeyes, who lost at Michigan earlier this season, would finish 14-4 if they win out. If the Wolverines beat Michigan State and lose at Iowa, they’d be 13-4. In that scenario, the Wolverines’ scheduled game at last-place Illinois, canceled due to weather, likely cost them a share of the Big Ten title.

Michigan would clinch the title by the end of Thursday under the following conditions: Michigan beats Michigan State; Ohio State loses to Penn State (6 p.m. tip); Iowa loses at Rutgers (8 p.m.).

If the Wolverines were to lose to Michigan State and beat Iowa, they’d have an outside shot at winning the Big Ten. They’d still need Ohio State to lose — either to Penn State on Thursday or at Michigan State on Sunday.

The good news for Michigan is that even with an 0-2 finish, Michigan would stay in the top four of the standings and earn a double bye in next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.

Got it? OK, back to Thursday. Michigan will host a Michigan State team that beat the Wolverines two weeks ago, 63-57. Naz Hillmon scored 27 points in that game. She’ll need some more help this time around, though Michigan’s second leading scorer might miss her fifth straight game with a lower leg injury.

Leigha Brown hasn’t played since Jan. 31. “It’s super tricky,” Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico said on the radio station WTKA on Tuesday when asked about Brown’s status. “We have two games left and then we have the Big Ten Tournament where you can play multiple days in a row. Does that become a factor? Then you’ve got the NCAA Tournament.

“I think at the end of the day it’s about Leigha’s health and safety first and foremost and making sure that she feels great and is cleared by our medical team. … Leigha is such a competitor. She don’t want to miss a day. We want to be smart about it.”

Barnes Arico reiterated that Brown would play again this season. Exactly when is unclear.

While Brown is in her fourth season of college basketball and second with Michigan, she won’t be honored in a pregame ceremony since she’ll be taking advantage of the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver and sticking around for another season.

Michigan’s other four seniors will be celebrated: Hillmon, Danielle Rauch, Amy Dilk, and Emily Kiser.

The quartet joined a Michigan program known mostly for NIT runs and took it to new heights. Last season, Michigan made its deepest NCAA Tournament run in program history, reaching the Sweet 16 before losing in overtime.

This season, Michigan notched several more firsts: a win over a top-five opponent; a top-10 national ranking; a top-five national ranking. And now, a chance at its first Big Ten title.

Rauch and Kizer showed patience and perseverance over their careers, going from little-used reserves to starters. Dilk was the starting point guard for three years before losing her job after an injury in this season’s opening minute. She’s embraced her role as a key piece off the bench.

Hillmon has solidified herself as the best player in program history. She is 15 rebounds shy of becoming the first Wolverine, man or woman, to reach 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.

“Everyone who has come before (this senior class) has left their mark and helped grow our program,” Barnes Arico said. “But this group is a little bit different.”

She said she’s given Hillmon a daily hug recently, knowing their time together is dwindling.

Thursday’s ceremony, scheduled to start at 5:45, will be a time to look back. These seniors have accomplished so much. They want more.

Christin Hakim

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