March S[imulation]adness: Arkansas-Michigan preview

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 07: Naz Hillmon #00 of the Michigan Wolverines rebounds the ball in the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the second quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 07, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 07: Naz Hillmon #00 of the Michigan Wolverines rebounds the ball in the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the second quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 07, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images) /

Two teams with momentum heading into a tournament

[Please enjoy our March S[imulation]adness content. For more about this project, check out our explainer post.]

On March 10, the Arkansas Women’s Basketball team announced that they’d be hosting a Selection Monday watch party at a local barbecue joint — a moment for players, fans and media to commemorate the Razorbacks’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2014-15 season.

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The simulation projected that on the Monday night in question, a great time was had by all, with brackets revealing the eighth-seeded Razorbacks’ first-round matchup against the ninth-seeded Michigan Wolverines. This matchup takes place in Eugene, eventually leading into the Portland regional, with the Oregon Ducks serving as the coveted one seed in the bracket.

Michigan is making its third consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, falling in the second round the last two seasons to the Baylor Lady Bears in 2018 and the Louisville Cardinals in 2019. The Wolverines have had no problems with their last two first round matchups — dismantling Kansas State by 30 in 2019 and Northern Colorado by 14 in 2018 — but this year poses a much more daunting task: battling the team that finished in a four-way tie for third place in the SEC.

Let’s take a closer look at both teams.

Breaking down the Razorbacks

Arkansas is led by Head Coach Mike Neighbors, who has turned the program in the right direction in this his third season at the helm. Just two seasons ago, the Hogs posted an abysmal 3-13 record in conference play and 13-18 mark overall. This year, Arkansas went 24-8 and was one of four teams in the SEC to amass a 10-6 record in conference play. It most recently fell to South Carolina in the SEC tournament semifinals.

The Razorbacks are led by the duo of redshirt junior Chelsea Dungee and senior Alexis Tolefree. The two combined to average over 33 points and nine rebounds per game this season.

This is just Tolefree’s second season in Fayetteville, as she transferred from Jones College after her sophomore season during which she ranked first in the MACJC and seventh nationally in scoring. Tolefree scored a season-high 35 points on February 2 against Missouri and connected on seven three-point attempts on March 5 against Auburn.

Arkansas ranks sixth in the nation in three-point field goal percentage, connecting from behind the arc at a 38.9% clip. They make the fifth-most threes in the country as well, at 9.8 per game. Leading the barrage from downtown is redshirt junior Amber Ramirez, who ranks ninth in the NCAA in shooting the three at 44.7%. If the Wolverines have any chance of advancing to the Round of 32, they’ll need to locate Ramirez as well as the rest of the Razorback shooters on the perimeter.

Breaking down the Wolverines

Michigan is led by Kim Barnes Arico, who’s coached the Wolverines to 10 or more wins in the Big Ten for the fourth consecutive season. It was a competitive year for the conference, with six teams finishing either in the AP Top 25 or receiving votes in the final poll. This year, the Wolverines finished 21-11 and 10-8 in the Big Ten, most recently falling to Ohio State in the conference tournament semifinals.

On the court, Michigan is engineered by sophomore forward Naz Hillmon, who averages 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Following a freshman season during which she captured both Big Ten Freshman and Sixth Woman of the Year honors, Hillmon scored in double-figures 28 times and recorded 11 double-doubles as an encore performance this year.

The Wolverines lost their third-leading scorer, senior Kayla Robbins, to an ACL tear in January. This setback placed a heavier load on Hillmon to pick up the slack in the paint, as well as sophomore point guard and former Indiana Ms. Basketball Amy Dilk. If Arkansas wants to advance to the second round, they’d be wise to contain Hillmon with double-teams upon every one of her catches in the paint where she’s nearly automatic.

Expert Analysis and Prediction

Says Pac-12 Analyst and former WNBA on ESPN Studio Host Cindy Brunson, “This is why the Razorbacks hired alum Mike Neighbors. He’s been waiting for the nation to take notice of his #BeArkansas transformative program building process and he’s not going to let his Razorbacks get tripped up by a tough Wolverines crew. Coach KBA and her bunch will battle, and it will be close but Arkansas will survive and advance.”

Michigan will remain competitive in this one thanks to the inside-outside post combo of Hillmon and junior Hailey Brown, but the scoring of Dungee and Tolefree along with the shooting of Ramirez and rebounding of junior Taylah Thomas will prove too much for the Wolverines to handle.

Prediction: Arkansas 77, Michigan 71

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