Three keys to Michigan challenging Stanford and making their first-ever Sweet 16

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It was a good weekend for Michigan Wolverines basketball. The men's team advanced to the Sweet 16 and the women's team won their first NCAA Tournament game in over a decade with a 60-52 win over the Villanova Wildcats. But to make the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history, the women will have to find a way to beat the #1 seed Stanford Cardinal at Maples Pavilion (6:30 p.m. PST). A fantasy, perhaps, but what would they have to do to have a chance?

The last time I saw a Michigan Wolverines women's basketball game in person was in Ann Arbor in 2002 when they lost to the Valparaiso Crusaders in the first round of the WNIT.

Their last NCAA Tournament win occurred in 2001, a few months before I even arrived at the school.

It's sort of hard for me not to think about Sunday's win in those terms: since I first enrolled, they hadn't even made the Big Dance until last year. It's a big deal. And it's made even bigger by the fact that the Michigan women have never advanced to the Sweet 16.

So beating the Stanford Cardinal tonight - at Maples Pavilion, but really the point would stand anywhere - would not only be an extremely satisfying, bracket-busting, season-defining upset that would justify all the optimism about hiring Kim Barnes Arico but also represent the farthest the program has ever gone.

As a neutral observer you could go into tonight's game saying, "Whatever - that ain't happ'nin, son." But as a fan and alum going to Maples tonight, I can't simply ignore the magnitude of the moment: no matter how unrealistic it might be, I'm going to go in hoping to witness something historic against all odds.

So, acknowledging that I'm writing this purely as a fan of the school and am under no illusion that an upset is likely, what would the Wolverines have to do to emerge from Maples as The Victors?

Three keys to a historic, season-defining upset

1. Kate Thompson must be on fire

Villanova coach Harry Perretta said after their loss to Michigan in the first round on Sunday that they'd need 10 threes to beat Stanford. And that begins with senior Kate Thompson.

Thompson may not be the nation's best 3-point shooter, but among players who have played in a minimum of 75% of their team's games shooting more than two per game Thompson is among the top 25 in the nation. And that becomes more impressive when considering that Thompson is shooting 39.3% on 280 attempts, which is the third most of anyone in that group of qualified players.

A lot of her success is due not only to her quick release and in-the-gym range, but also her height - if a defender is even a fraction of a second late in a catch and shoot situation, she can get the shot off simply by shooting over them.

Yet she's not immune to having off games: it's probably no coincidence that Thompson has shot just 25% from 3-point range in Michigan's 10 losses this season. In short, when Thompson isn't hitting at least 30% of her threes, Michigan really struggles.

And things were tough in the first half against Villanova when she was held without a 3-pointer.

2. Finding second and third options if Thompson is shut down

Michigan is going to be spend many possessions running Thompson off two or three screens at various places around the court to get her an open look at the three point line. There'll be staggered screens and down screens, Thompson will start by running along the baseline or standing on the weakside. But at some point someone is going to set a screen for Thompson.

To Villanova's credit, they did an outstanding job of keeping Thompson in check in the first half - Michigan was only up 26-24 and Villanova star Laura Sweeney spent most of that time in foul trouble.

Although Michigan is extremely patient in running these sets and it can get them in trouble, if a team manages to deny Thompson the ball or switch on the screens - as Villanova did very effectively at times - they can really make it hard on Michigan to get anything going. If a defender is able to crowd Thompson as she catches the ball, she's not someone who's going to immediately look to beat someone off the dribble or make a quick move to create space a la Stephen Curry; Thompson is dangerous but not impossible to stop.

It's highly unlikely that any of this is lost on Tara VanDerveer and Stanford's coaching staff who just had a chance to watch the Wolverines in person. The question is how the Wolverines respond if Thompson is shut down in tonight's game.

First, Thompson will have to go to the basket hard if defenders don't give her space as she did a few times against the Wildcats. Similarly, Ryan will need to find a way to penetrate and find open shooters rather than picking the ball up early, which plays into Stanford's disciplined team defense. Throughout the season, everyone from Ohio State to Penn State has given Michigan trouble by picking up point guard Jenny Ryan early and applying full or 3/4 court pressure. That's not normally Stanford's style so it's not likely to be a major problem, but as a team they're going to have to avoid the type of mishandled balls in the post that they had on Sunday and other careless turnovers - forward Rachel Sheffer had 5 turnovers against Villanova, mostly in the post, and that's not going to work against Stanford.

On the flip side, Sheffer's rebounding will be a huge key.

3. Michigan has to control the boards

Michigan is probably not going to stop Chiney Ogwumike because almost nobody does. And they're probably not going to beat Stanford the way Cal or Connecticut has this season, by pressuring perimeter players and denying passes into the post.

If Michigan is going to win this game, they're going to have to do it by playing disciplined team defense - running wings like Samuelson and Taylor Greenfield off the 3-point line and mixing up the type of pressure they apply on Ogwumike when she gets the ball in the post. They'll have to avoid the type of lapses in communication on defense that they had against Villanova that left players wide open for layups off screens. But most of all, the Wolverines will have to be tenacious on the boards if they're able to force Stanford into misses.

The Wolverines had an impressive rebounding game against Villanova in the first round, led by Rachel Sheffer who tied a career-high with 13 rebounds. But beyond Sheffer's impressive performance, they got contributions from across the board: Nya Jordan was one rebound shy of a double-double and Thompson added 6, which is above her average.

Overall, they held the Wildcats to an offensive rebounding rate of 23.8%, which is outstanding. But that wasn't a good rebounding team to begin with, especially with Sweeney in foul trouble; Stanford is.

Of course, the chances that Michigan wins this game are slim - I'm under no illusion that it's easy to make history in Maples. And the fact that they're also a slow-paced team that needs to be disciplined in order to win - like Stanford - doesn't exactly help them; they're not a team that will win uptempo games and that's where Stanford is at their best because they're extremely efficient possession-to-possession.

But what we, the small group maize and blue faithful in a sea of Cardinal red, can hope for is that they do the things they have to just to give themselves a shot.

"I think anytime you're the higher seed, you have a tremendous amount of pressure on you," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said in her post game comments. "I'm sure Stanford was feeling the pressure and Tulsa felt like they had nothing to lose so they went out there and played loose. We've watched games all across the country the last few days where there have been a ton of upsets, and those kinds of things happen when you hang around, hang around, hang around."

Michigan will need a combination of superlative execution on their part, hot shooting, an off day by Stanford, and probably a little lot of luck to pull off a win of this magnitude. But given the direction of the program, what we can hope for as fans is a good showing against one of the nation's best programs to cap off what has already been a milestone season.

For more on the tournament, visit our 2013 NCAA Tournament section.

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