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U-M women's basketball is winning games and fans

John U Bacon
John U. Bacon

The University of Michigan men’s basketball team is getting lots of attention. The Wolverines have won 15 Big Ten titles, including the title won last night with a win over MSU.

But another story is unfolding on the same court. A story that might be more exciting: the Michigan women’s basketball team.

Michigan’s women’s basketball team started in 1973. The team played as independent until the Big Ten sponsored the sport in 1982. Since then, conference teams have won or shared 52 league titles, with the Michigan women winning exactly zero.

It gets worse: in 37 Big Ten seasons, Michigan has finished as high as second only once, but has finished last 11 times – You get the idea.

Enter coach Kim Barnes-Arico, who took over the lowly St. John’s program in the highly competitive Big East conference when she was just 32. She had to face U-Conn, which has won a staggering 11 national titles. But she pushed the team to that NCAA tournament three straight years, capped by a Sweet 16 finish her last year. Perhaps more impressive, St. John’s broke U-Conn’s 99-game home winning streak, on their senior night no less. Barnes-Arico also won her second Big East Coach of the Year honors.

Everyone expected Barnes-Arico to stay in the Northeast forever. Her family lives in New Jersey, after all, she and her husband had three young children there, and the Big East is considered stronger than the Big Ten in her sport. She even had three future draft picks coming back the next year.

But when Michigan came calling, Kim and her family decided to make the jump.

She said, “Honestly, it was the opportunity to come to one of the greatest universities in the world, to have the block M on my shirt.” She’s always been a builder, and thought, maybe she could do something at Michigan that had never been done before.

And she has, winning 20 games for eight straight seasons – something all previous Michigan women’s coaches had only done four times. Her current team won its first ten games, the best start in school history, and is ranked 12th nationwide. Her star, Naz Hillmon, scored 50 points in a game, something no Michigan basketball player, man or woman, had ever done.

But as any big-time coach can tell you, the success has come with a price.

She tells the story of a few years ago, when she was tucking in her middle child, then 10-years old. The girl was talking and talking, and wouldn’t stop. Finally Barnes-Arico said, "Emma, it’s bed time." And she said, "Mommy, this is the only time I get to talk to you." The coach had tears rolling down her eyes.

To increase their time together, Barnes-Arico brings her kids to team meals and on road trips, and work harder to find more time for each other.

She wants to set an example for the young women she coaches, to show them that they can do it: have a demanding career and still be part of a healthy family. “I have to preach it, and live it,” she says.   

KBA, as her players call her, has not only built a winning program, but a loyal following. The women’s team doesn’t draw crowds like the men’s team does, but their fans are arguably more devoted. The players stay after games to sign autographs, chat up their fans – often little girls – and even shoot baskets with them. 

Under the leadership of Barnes-Arico, Michigan women’s basketball will continue to get better, and bigger, and more popular. But I’m not sure if it will ever be more fun than it is right now.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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