- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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STANFORD -- Kim Barnes Arico had them before hello.
She had been announced as Michigan's new coach just about this time last year, and senior-to-be Jenny Ryan did a little research. She looked up Barnes Arico's résumé, her success at St. John's -- including four NCAA appearances and a trip to the Sweet 16 -- and she was sold.
Turns out, it was blind faith well-placed.
"I think it's almost a year ago to the day we found out that we lost our head coach, and at that time you don't know what to expect,'' said Ryan, the team captain. "But then once we found out it was Coach Arico, we heard about her success from St. John's, and you can't help but be excited to bring in someone who has expertise on that level. Numbers don't lie.
"I think we all bought into the system before even meeting her, and just being in her presence, having her passion and her love for the game -- you can't help but want to play for a coach like that."
Barnes Arico hasn't so much transformed the Wolverines as built on the foundation laid by Kevin Borseth while shaping the program in her own image -- toughness, but with equal doses of heart and high expectations.
The Wolverines, 21-10 overall and 10-6 in a competitive Big Ten conference, come in as the No. 8 seed and face No. 9 Villanova on Sunday at Stanford's Maples Pavilion. They are making back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time since 2000-01.
It's a matchup of the familiar for Barnes Arico and Villanova's Harry Perretta, who coached against each other for 10 years in the Big East and became close friends through the years. Perretta, in fact, recommended her for the job at Michigan.
"I knew she would be very successful there," Perretta said.
Barnes Arico had her trepidations at the beginning. It's not easy coming in to a senior-laden team as a first-year coach, remaking a program while giving your most experienced players the opportunity to build on previous successes.
The Wolverines reached the NCAA field last year for the first time in more than a decade under Borseth, but by the skin of their teeth. And the shock of his departure -- Borseth left after five seasons to return to his previous job at Green Bay -- was palpable.
In came Barnes Arico, the born-and-bred New Yorker who had never coached anywhere but New York or New Jersey.
"I wasn't sure coming in how receptive the senior class was going to be towards me and how much they were going to change," Barnes Arico said. "But this is really a special group and they've kind of embraced me, embraced my family and just kind of made life easier for me in my first time meeting them. They've got a unique group. Most important thing: They just want to play together and they want to win."
It has been, by all accounts, a smooth transition on both ends, once the players got used to Barnes Arico's style: dishing out brutal truth with the occasional hug. But first, she thought she had to build trust and credibility.
"My biggest thing with them as seniors is, 'I know you think you're as good as you can be, but there is so much more. Just let me coach you,' " she said. "I said, 'Give me an opportunity to be your coach, practice as hard as you can and listen to what I'm saying. Try to get to that next level.' "
Barnes Arico went out of her way to get to know her players, especially the seniors. If she got them on board, she knew the rest would follow. She's now sad to see them go so soon.
"She was really honest with us, and that is all you can ask for," said senior Nya Jordan. "I think the biggest difference for me, as opposed to last year, the style of play that she practices every day -- it forces you to push through all the barriers that you've never been pushed through. I think that last year I kind of took it a little bit easier than I did this year, but with her new style and her new system, literally, we had to get through it."
Ryan, who has averaged a career-high 10.1 points a game this season, seconded that notion.
"I think we have all improved in ways we didn't think possible," Ryan said. "Just being here in the NCAA tournament, it speaks to her commitment to us. She went out of her way to get to know us. I know our senior class has loved every minute of it."
Asked what was the hardest and the best things about her new job, Barnes Arico admitted they kind of bled together.
"The hardest thing was saying goodbye to the team at St. John's. We had really started something there.'' she said. "But once I got to Michigan, I knew from day one that I made the right decision, 100 percent. The place really is special. ... It's really been the greatest year for me."
12dBonnie D. Ford