Late in a close game against an in-state rival, Kevin Borseth looked out on the court and saw he was putting the game in the hands of Dayeesha Hollins, Jenny Ryan, Nya Jordan, Rachel Sheffer, and Carmen Reynolds. The significance? These players don’t exactly have much big game experience. In fact, they don’t have much experience at all; four are freshmen and one is a sophomore.
But this young team is showing a great deal of promise and should capture more and more attention on a campus hungry for a winning program.
Of the “big four” sports at the University of Michigan, three of them feature head coaches in or entering their third season. The casual college sports fan is likely familiar with two, men’s basketball coach John Beilein and football coach Rich Rodriguez (who begins his third season in the fall), both from West Virginia University.
However, the recently hired Michigan coach who has made the greatest strides is Borseth, the women’s basketball head coach in the midst of his third season in Ann Arbor after nine seasons at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Borseth is in his 23rd year as a head coach at the Division I and II levels, and he’s been a winner throughout his career. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he led Michigan Tech to four conference titles in 11 seasons, earning the league’s coach of the year award five times. Borseth’s UW-Green Bay teams won the league title all nine of his seasons, reaching 20 wins in all but his first year.
Winning has not come as easily to Borseth in Ann Arbor. Inheriting a program that had won only 21 games the previous three seasons, he took over the Wolverines and immediately returned them to respectability by going .500 in the Big Ten and 19-14 overall, winning two games in the NIT. But Michigan regressed last season, at least in the winning column, going 10-20 and a dismal 3-15 in conference.
Last year was especially disappointing because Michigan started 7-4 in the nonconference, beating No. 12 Vanderbilt and No. 8 Notre Dame. But two long losing streaks in the Big Ten, including dropping the last eight, doomed the Wolverines.
There were worries that this year’s squad might follow a similar script. Michigan had another impressive early season resume, knocking off two ACC schools and No. 8 Xavier, all on the road. The Wolverines won an early December game at Iowa as well, but then went 2-6 in their next eight Big Ten games, the last of which was a heart-breaking two-point home loss to Ohio State, and many fans had to be thinking, “here we go again.”
But entering Thursday night’s game with Michigan State, Michigan had won four of its last five and was 6-7 in conference and 14-9 overall. The young players Borseth put his faith in performed admirably (Hollins, a freshman, scored a game-high 19 points), but Michigan lost, 50-45. Even so, the Wolverines are only two games back of third place in a conference that, even with only four games left, could see the standings shift dramatically. Other than Ohio State, which is 13-2, the remaining seeds are up for grabs.
Michigan’s remaining schedule is difficult, with road games at Penn State and Minnesota and home contests against Wisconsin and Purdue. If the Wolverines were to go, say, 2-2, then win a game in the Big Ten Tournament, it would probably get them an NIT bid, but no more. To look at this as a disappointment, though, would be far too critical given the youth of this team. Michigan’s 13-player roster consists of six freshmen and three sophomores. Of the eight players averaging at least 10 minutes per game, five of them are underclassmen.
In Year Three under Borseth, it’s clear the program is making strides. Michigan has proven it can win on the road, notching seven victories away from Crisler. It has proven it can beat top-ranked teams (Xavier). And it has proven it can hang with the best in conference (the two losses to Ohio State were by a combined five points). The next step is not just hanging tough in those games, but winning them.
There’s still plenty of basketball to be played this season, but it’s hard not to get excited thinking about the future of Michigan women’s basketball.