How Does Michigan Replace Amy Dilk?
A team effort will be required to fill the shoes of M's injured senior starting point guard. True freshmen Laila Phelia and Ari Wiggins are no longer on standby.
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In the first minute of the regular season, Michigan received their first unexpected moment of adversity. On an innocent-looking play, senior point guard Amy Dilk jumped for a defensive rebound, landed on Naz Hillmon’s foot, and crumpled to the floor holding her left knee.
Dilk eventually left the court in a large brace, not bearing weight on the injured leg. Replays didn’t look good. While there hasn’t been an update as of this writing, any scenario in which Dilk returns in the near future would be a surprisingly good outcome. For at least a little while, Kim Barnes Arico needs to adjust the rotation.
We got a glimpse of what those adjustments will look like in the 67-62 overtime win over a tough IUPUI squad. Four players in particular are going to see significant changes to their projected role, including two talented true freshmen.
Counterintuitively, we start with a player who’s more wing than guard in 6’1 senior Leigha Brown, who plays small forward in most of Michigan’s lineup configurations. While Brown is far from a true point guard — she had 56 assists and 56 turnovers in 2020-21 — she’s a capable pick-and-roll ballhandler who’s especially good at creating her own shots.
Michigan might need Brown to look to pass more off of her drives. According to Synergy, she used the possession (either shooting or turning it over) on 64% of her pick-and-roll ballhandler opportunities last season and her passes produced little offense — partly due to bad shooting luck, it appears, but also because she almost always kicked the ball out instead of finding the screener or a cutter.
Brown does display nice touch on entry passes, which is crucial when the team is built around Hillmon.
Still, she’s going to be a score-first player. That’s her game. Michigan will lean on her even more for late-clock creation without Dilk to take some of those shots, and she was already the team’s go-to player when the shot clock ticked close to zero. Brown’s knack for creating contact — she drew five fouls against IUPUI — adds a great deal of effectiveness to her forays to the hoop.
While Brown led the team with four assists after Dilk went down, the entry pass to Hillmon was the only one that required making a tough pass outside the flow of the offense, and she also committed three turnovers. Ideally, the true guards step up so Brown can maintain her normal role as much as possible.
Brown had a minor injury to begin the season and came off the bench in the exhibition and versus IUPUI, though in the latter she played 39 minutes, second-most on the team. She’ll start from here on out, like she did last year.
The 5’8 senior guard has been in this position before: when Dilk didn’t make the trip to last season’s NCAA Tournament, Rauch filled her starting role and played the best ball of her college career:
Rauch started twice in the regular season and Big Ten Tournament, scoring a total of 21 points in 16 games. She stepped into the starting lineup for the NCAA Tournament and surpassed her previous output, dropping in 22 points in three games.
She became a timely shooter, attempting all but three of her shots and hitting 5-of-14 from beyond the arc. With ten assists against five turnovers in the tourney, she also proved she can replace [Akienreh] Johnson’s secondary playmaking. She plays a different game than Johnson, who attacked more off the dribble, but she can help the offense in similar ways.
Rauch displayed an expanded repertoire in the season opener, looking solid as a pass-first pick-and-roll ballhandler and hitting a tough baseline floater off a kickout pass from Brown. Maintaining efficiency with an increased workload is key; she posted a minuscule 10.1% usage rate last season, per Her Hoop Stats. That figure moved up to 15.4% against IUPUI.
Rauch is going to use the threat of her outside shot to create opportunities more than she’s going to break the defense down off the dribble. She can still keep plays moving and provide valuable playmaking while being a plus defender.
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Phelia is one of the most touted recruits to ever join the program, landing at #28 overall in ESPN’s rankings, which are stingy with that fifth star (they only gave those out to the top 15 players in 2021 class). ESPN’s in-person evaluations of Phelia were glowing:
Classic-in-the-Country Challenge-January 2020: Athletic guard manufactures shots, knocks down jumpers at the arc; executes in half-court game, creates into the defense, rises over defenders and delivers in mid-range game; competes on both ends of the floor; among the elite guards in the class of 2021. (Olson)
Ohio Midwest Showdown-May 2019: Athletic guard brings consistent offensive production to the back court; a shot maker with range to the 3-point line and beyond; uptempo contributor, attacks in transition, delivers results; a scoring guard with size on the perimeter. (Olson)
A lot of that reads like exactly what Michigan needs to replace Dilk, the most athletic and versatile of the returning guards on the squad.
Phelia’s stats against IUPUI were pedestrian: four points, 1/3 on twos, 0/2 on threes, 2/2 from the line, and four defensive rebounds in 23 minutes. She popped off the screen, however, on both ends of the court. Her made basket was a smooth stop-and-pop in transition:
She drew a shooting foul with a strong drive to her left (non-dominant) hand operating in isolation and had everything but the finish later on when she took a pass in the corner and blew by the defender closing out on her.
Phelia’s defense also stood out. Her athleticism and length for a guard serve her well on that end of the floor. When it came time to close out the game with a lead in overtime, Barnes Arico swapped out Rauch and Emily Kiser for Phelia and Ari Wiggins when the Wolverines were on defense — a rare occurrence for two freshman guards.
Barnes Arico has made it abundantly clear that she really likes this class of freshmen and I think Phelia is going to be the best of the bunch this season. She looked very comfortable creating her own shot and, like Dilk, she should be able to defend multiple positions on the perimeter.
Barnes Arico called Wiggins the fastest player she’s ever coached at media day. The 5’8 point guard showed that burst on Tuesday night, jumping a passing lane and going the other way for her first collegiate points:
Wiggins made her biggest contributions on defense, forcing another turnover with an aggressive tie-up and using her quickness to keep the ball in front of her at all times. Like Phelia, she earned KBA’s trust as a late-game defensive sub.
She looked to set up offense for others instead of playing to score, and while the results were rough — one assist, three turnovers — the potential was apparent. This is a gorgeous entry pass that even features Wiggins looking to the corner to hold up any help on Hillmon:
If Wiggins can deal like that on a regular basis, Michigan won’t need her to score much — they have plenty of punch with Hillmon, Brown, Phelia, and the surrounding shooters.
Michigan is going to miss Amy Dilk. There’s no way around that. She’s been a productive player since the moment she arrived on campus and she showed signs of being in her best-ever form in last week’s exhibition. Her two-way play was a major driver of last season’s success and the tournament success in her absence doesn’t negate those contributions, especially with Akienreh Johnson no longer around to pick up some of the slack.
Barnes Arico has assembled a deep roster, however, and her historically strong recruiting by previous Michigan standards is paying dividends. Phelia and Wiggins look like they’ll develop into Big Ten-caliber players this season, as could 6’2 guard Jordan Hobbs, a potential matchup nightmare whose up-and-down debut included a hell of a highlight:
This can still be the program’s best team ever, especially with a version of Hillmon that now hits three-pointers and maneuvers past defenders off the dribble. The margin for error has slimmed, though, and any further long-term injuries in the backcourt would be catastrophic.