The Agony of Almost
And the uncertainty of the future after Michigan's Elite Eight loss to Louisville.
SITE STUFF: All monthly and annual subscriptions are still 20% off for one year through the end of March! Get access to all the site’s postseason coverage for both the men and the women at a healthy discount.
Down by two points against one-seed Louisville at the fourth quarter media timeout, Michigan partisans couldn’t have asked for much more from the program’s first-ever Elite Eight appearance.
Leigha Brown — the conductor of Michigan’s offense, their perimeter bucket-getter, and one of the team’s best defenders — didn’t come back into the game. She’d subbed out with 7:51 to go looking frustrated and not right. The announcing team confirmed that, due to an injury, Brown wouldn’t return on Monday.
Danielle Rauch and Emily Kiser made baskets shortly after Brown’s final exit; Naz Hillmon split a pair of free throws to cut Louisville’s lead to 52-50 with 5:42 remaining.
Michigan didn’t score another point, missing their final eight shots and committing four turnovers. Even though Brown hadn’t made a shot from the field, her critical importance to the team was proven in the worst way.
The Bucket Problem is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. All subscriptions are 20% off through the end of March, no code needed!
Taking the fight to the Cardinals in an Elite Eight game is another huge step for Kim Barnes Arico’s program. After all, the Wolverines lost by 22 at Louisville only a few months ago, and that score depicts a closer game than the reality.
Thus, a large part of me feels like this:
On the other hand, there’s an emptiness that hasn’t accompanied past tournament exits. This team was banner-worthy, and on two separate occasions, untimely injuries to Brown contributed to Michigan coming up agonizingly short.
Hillmon will get her banner in the form of the 00 jersey being retired, or we riot. Based on her genuine dedication to the team above all else, I doubt she’s satisfied by that thought, or one of an Elite Eight banner. A Final Four is different and she was so, so close.
Meanwhile, Rauch and Kiser and Brown and Amy Dilk may leave on the same note. There are decisions to be made between pursuing professional basketball careers, beginning life after hoops, or utilizing the extra year of eligibility from the pandemic. Given the 15-scholarship cap, I’m assuming at least a few will move on; Michigan has three incoming freshmen signed.
No matter what, next year’s team is going to look a lot different. After the continuity and accomplishments of the last four years, and previous two in particular, last night was the end of something special.
We’ll find out very soon if last night was also the end of the greatest individual career in program history. Hillmon has 48 hours from the end of last night’s games to figure out whether she’ll declare for the WNBA draft. Quite understandably, she didn’t have an answer last night.
Q. Naz, you technically could come back if you wanted to. Do you feel like you're ready to move on, or do you have that decision? I know it's a tough decision to talk about now, but what do you think about that?
NAZ HILLMON: Yeah, I've been just really putting a lot of my focus on what was at hand. I need a little bit of time to reflect on this.
When you make it to the Elite Eight, something that Michigan has never done, Michigan women's basketball has never done before, and in the pit of your stomach you know it was a ride that you want to take again, there will be some reflection and I will be thinking about that.
While Hillmon isn’t in the first round of ESPN’s latest WNBA mock draft, those don’t have nearly the accuracy of their NBA equivalent — you’ll see projected first-rounders fall out of the draft entirely on occasion. Without an extensive pre-draft process, there’s less information to go on. Hillmon could easily be coveted as a first-rounder by at least one team, which is all it takes.
And so, we wait.
Michigan is a program on the rise. They have a future star in Laila Phelia. Barnes Arico has raised the level of recruiting to that of a consistent Big Ten contender.
A player and program centerpiece of Hillmon’s caliber is rare, though. The ceiling of next year’s team is much different with her than without her, to state the obvious. The bigger question is whether the program can continue to build on their unprecedented success long-term without Hillmon.
I’d happily wait another year before pondering the answer.