WBB: Hello Again, Baylor
A nationally televised rematch awaits. Also: Laila Phelia's emergence, Leigha Brown as point forward, the return of Izabel Varejão, and much more.
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Michigan plays one of the games of the weekend when they square off against #5 Baylor on Sunday afternoon. For the Wolverines, it’s a chance to avenge last year’s Sweet Sixteen overtime loss and make their way into the top ten of the polls — they’re 13th in the AP and 11th in the Coaches.
Despite losing senior point guard Amy Dilk to a knee injury in the first minute of the season, Michigan is off to a 10-1 start with their only loss to #6/#4 Louisville on the road. Before digging into the Baylor rematch, let’s go through some noteworthy developments for the Wolverines so far this season.
The Rise of Laila Phelia
While Dilk’s knee injury isn’t a season-ender as initially feared, there’s still no concrete timetable for a return. While experienced guards Danielle Rauch and, to a lesser extent, Maddie Nolan have been invaluable in replacing some of Dilk’s production, freshman Laila Phelia has broken through to replace Nolan in the starting lineup the last three games.
That’s not because Nolan is playing poorly — not at all, as she’s been the team’s most effective outside shooter and an absolute pest as a defender and rebounder. Bringing her off the bench allows Kim Barnes Arico to stagger the minutes of her two main three-point gunners (Nolan and Rauch). First player off the bench is a fitting role for Nolan’s high-energy game, while Phelia brings a new dynamic to the starting lineup:
“(Phelia’s) having an unbelievable freshman season,” Barnes Arico said after the Akron game. “I think she just gives us something that we don’t have. Her explosiveness to the basket, her ability to get in the lane, her ability to finish at the rim, and plus her defensive ability.”
Phelia packs more scoring punch than the other bench guards. She’s averaging 7.2 points per game (8.7 in her three starts) on a steady stream of drives to the basket, giving the team more upside than when they insert Michelle Sidor (low-volume spot-up shooter, 3/15 on threes) or Ari Wiggins (speedy freshman point guard, non-shooter).
As Barnes Arico said, Phelia is on a different level as an athlete and finisher. Her instincts around the basket are excellent; this is advanced work off the pick-and-roll to weave through the lane for a finish:
She’s also been a key defender all year. Opponents have shot 2/12 on pick-and-roll possessions with three shooting fouls drawn and eight(!!!) turnovers when Phelia is defending the ballhandler, per Synergy. She also plays at the top of M’s 1-2-2 press, which Barnes Arico has deployed on a more regular basis this season.
The main area I’d like to see progress is Phelia’s passing; her three assists this season translate to a microscopic 2.3% assist rate. She’s displayed some good touch on entry passes to the post from the perimeter; as defenses home in on her as a finisher, she’s going to need to become more of a playmaker off the dribble.
Leigha Brown, Primary Ballhandler
Number two scorer Leigha Brown looks fully recovered from the nagging injury that’s limited her to eight games and four starts, averaging 16 points on 56% shooting from the field in the first two Big Ten games, comfortable wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Brown hasn’t only been looking to score. She tallied five assists in each of those games. Her assist rate has improved from a career-high 19.2% last year — solid for a secondary playmaker — to 25.6% this season, a figure that’s in the range of a lot of point guards.
A lot of her production is coming out of the pick-and-roll. She ranks in the 98th percentile as a scorer on P&R possessions and been a bit unlucky to be in 34th percentile as a P&R passer — Michigan is 6/11 when he hits the rolling big or a cutter and 0/5 when she finds a spot-up shooter, an indication she’s a couple unfortunate misses away from high-level passing production.
Brown is heading a remarkable team effort to replicate Dilk’s distribution. After her, the team’s leaders in assist rate are: Naz Hillmon (17.6%), Nolan (16.2%), Sidor (14.7%), Rauch (12.3%), and center Emily Kiser (11.0%). Hillmon’s uptick from a 9.7% rate last season has been particularly noticeable, while Nolan is accomplishing the tough trick of passing more and turning the ball over less.
More Rotation Notes
Rauch has improved from shooting 28% on 1.7 three-point attempts per game last season to 46% on 3.0 attempts so far this year. Only Nolan (42.9% on 4.5 attempts) takes more shots from beyond the arc; nobody else is shooting better than Brown’s 27.8%. Michigan can get away with having two real outside shooting threats — they did so last year — but first they needed Rauch to become one, and she’s done so with aplomb.
Kiser has been a revelation next to Hillmon. The senior is third on the team in points at 10.5 per game, making 51% of her two-pointers while averaging 2.5 offensive rebounds, 5.5 defensive boards, a steal and a block. Her passing from the top of the key has been excellent. She’s been nails at the free throw line (25/32), which gives some hope that her three-pointer (4/23) could come around.
After losing last year to COVID travel restrictions and starting slow this season, backup center Izabel Varejão has looked like she could be a significant contributor moving forward. She only appeared in five of the first eight games and couldn’t find a rhythm, going 1/7 from the field in that span. She’s played at least 4:40 in each of the last three games and hit 7/10 field goals with two offensive rebounds and two blocks. Good luck stopping a 6’4 post who can finish with her left hand before coming back later in the game with a shimmy-to-right-hook:
Freshman guard Jordan Hobbs and sophomore forward Cameron Williams have functionally fallen out of the rotation the last couple games. Wiggins has also seen her role reduced to under five minutes per game, presumably until she gets her turnovers under control.
Previewing Baylor (Sunday, 1 PM, ESPN)
While maintaining their lofty ranking, the Bears have experienced significantly more turnover than Michigan since these two teams met in March. Three-time national champion head coach Kim Mulkey made a shocking move to LSU in April. Also gone are starters DiDi Richards, Moon Ursin, and Trinity Oliver, as well as super sub Dijonai Carrington.
Nicki Collen is in her first college head coaching job taking over for Mulkey, though she was the 2018 WNBA coach of the year in her first of three seasons with the Atlanta Dream. She’s slowed the tempo and has the Bears shooting more three-pointers, which they rarely attempted under Mulkey.
Two frontcourt stars return to the starting lineup, headlined by national player of the year contender NaLyssa Smith, a versatile 6’4 forward averaging 20.4 points and 13.2 rebounds with 30% usage — she is the clear focal point of the offense. 6’3 center Queen Egbo is an intimidating shot-blocker who’s effective on putbacks and decent posting up. Her status is worth monitoring; she rolled an ankle in their last game and didn’t return, though it was the second half of a blowout win over Alcorn State.
Guards Sarah Andrews and Ja’Mee Asberry have both shot the three-ball well on relatively high volume; Andrews is also one of two lead ballhandlers along with Jordan Lewis, who’s more effective driving to the hoop than spotting up as a shooter. Sixth player Caitlin Bickle gives Baylor another strong finisher and rebounder. She’ll be called into a larger role if Egbo is limited or unavailable. Collen keeps a tight rotation; guards Kamaria McDaniel and Jaden Owens play limited roles.
THREE KEYS TO VICTORY
Second chances. Baylor edged out Michigan in offensive rebounds, 9-7, in the Sweet Sixteen game. They held Hillmon to only three; her season average was 4.8. This year, however, the Bears have been far less dominant on the boards. The Wolverines also haven’t put up the same numbers on the offensive glass, but they still have Hillmon, while Baylor is without three of their top four rebounders from last year’s game — and the fourth is Egbo, who may not be 100%.
Let Brown (and Phelia?) cook. Baylor no longer has Richards available as one of the best defensive stoppers in the country. They’ve struggled against isolation and been merely decent against pick-and-rolls; meanwhile, they lock down the post. While Michigan often works inside-out, an iso- and screen-heavy attack spearheaded by Brown — and maybe Phelia if she has a good matchup — could be the better approach for this opponent.
Make Smith work. It’s easier said than done, of course, to shut down Smith, who made all 11 of her field goals to prevent a Michigan upset in March. In fact, it’s worth writing that off entirely — she’s productive in every game. She did turn the ball over four times in the Sweet Sixteen game, however, and has four or more turnovers in four of ten games this season. She’s not always the most willing passer. Well-timed (and well-disguised) help can gain some critical extra possessions no matter who draws her as their main assignment.
Her Hoop Stats’ formula gives Baylor a four-point edge and 65% win probability. The game tips off at 1 pm Eastern on Sunday as part of the Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase on ESPN; it’s being played in Uncasville, Connecticut, home of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun (and the Mohegan Sun casino, not coincidentally).