Thursday evening gifts women’s college hoops fans with an intriguing Big Ten/ACC tilt, with the No. 10 Louisville Cardinals hosting the No. 12 Michigan Wolverines at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN).
With a victory, Michigan could become the fourth Big Ten team ranked in the Top 10, further boosting the conference’s case as the nation’s best. If the Wolverines do get the road win, expect it to be because of the offensive excellence of senior forward Naz Hillmon.
Last season, Hillmon emerged as an offensive force, using her strength to thrive as a near-unstoppable undersized interior scorer who averaged 24.5 points per game on better than 62 percent shooting. So far this season, she is averaging 21.8 points per game on 59.1 percent shooting.
In Michigan’s win over No. 16 Oregon State, she worked her way to 20 points, cashing in on eight of her 10 free throw attempts. She also grabbed 13 boards and snagged four steals to lead the Wolverines to the victory over a ranked opponent.
Can the Big Ten Player of the Week power her way to points against Louisville?
Currently, the Cardinals sport the second-ranked defense in the nation. However, there is reason to be a bit skeptical of Louisville’s defensive prowess. With the exception of their opening game against the then-No. 22 Arizona Wildcats, which the Cardinals lost in overtime, Louisville has faced a pretty soft schedule, allowing it to accumulate impressive defensive numbers while locking down lesser opponents in Bellarmine, UT Martin and Cal Poly.
Yet, to protect its home court against Michigan, Louisville likely will need its defense to remain on point.
The past two seasons, the Cardinals’ offense was the Dana Evans show. In Evans’ absence, Louisville has yet to establish a clear offensive identity. Last season, the Cardinals posted 76.8 points per game. This season, their scoring average has dropped to 67.8 points per game. And, as noted, Louisville has played a forgiving schedule.
Luckily, the Cardinals do have the personnel needed to slow Hillmon and, even if their offense is not firing on all cylinders, earn the win. The trio of Olivia Cochran, Emily Engstler and Liz Dixon have the combination of size and smarts to trouble Hillmon. Although, at 6-foot-1, she stands shorter than 6-foot-3 Cochran and 6-foot-5 Dixon, Engstler leads the Cardinals in blocks, swatting two shots per game.
No. 10 Louisville Cardinals (5-1, 0-0 ACC) vs. No. 12 Michigan Wolverines (7-0, 0-0 Big Ten)
When: Thursday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Yum! Center in Louisville, KY
How to watch: ESPN
Key to the matchup: Can Hailey Van Lith find her stroke? If there was a candidate to compensate for the scoring Louisville lost with Dana Evans, Hailey Van Lith would be at the top of many lists. Yet, the sophomore guard has begun the season in a severe shooting slump. After averaging 11.2 points last season, her scoring production has dropped to 9.3 points per game, largely because of her extreme struggles from deep. A 38.3 percent 3-point shooter as a freshman, Van Lith only has made one of her 19 attempts from behind the arc, giving her a frigid 3-point percentage of less than one percent. Van Lith’s best scoring performance of the young season came against Arizona, when she got to the line for 12 free throw attempts. Attacking the basket and earning trips to the line could help Van Lith generate efficient offense, even if her shot continues to elude her.