In a much-anticipated matchup of highly ranked opponents, the No. 6 Ohio State women’s basketball team is primed to open its season on Friday against No. 2 South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina, at 7 p.m.
The Buckeyes, looking to build on a 24-11 record from last season which ended with a loss to North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament, return all five starters, including last season’s co-Big Ten Player of the Year, sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell.
South Carolina boasts three returning starters, including senior guard Tiffany Mitchell, a two-time SEC Player of the Year. The Gamecocks also add a preseason All-American honorable mention in sophomore forward A’ja Wilson to the lineup. Last year, South Carolina’s season ended after a run to the Final Four, losing to Notre Dame 66-65.
However, rather than hyping up the game, Kelsey Mitchell stressed how she has been preparing for the 2015-16 season without certain opponents in mind.
“You’ve got to be prepared for everything,” she said. “I had no clue, honestly, that we were going to play (South Carolina and No. 1 Connecticut), but you’ve got to prepare before that.”
Since South Carolina returns three starters, including its top three scorers and rebounders, the Buckeyes understand they will need to step up on defense and in the post. Last season, OSU’s shallow depth, decimated by injuries, forced it to rely on its offense. Coach Kevin McGuff and his players said they understand their defense must improve.
“We weren’t as good as we needed to be last year,” McGuff said. “Part of it was our depth and our youth, but those can’t be excuses this year because we have enough depth and our kids are a year older.”
Beyond Kelsey Mitchell and the returning starters, OSU returns four players who missed most, or all of, last season, including redshirt freshman guard Kianna Holland, who was voted team captain. Holland, a transfer from Duke, will debut in a scarlet and gray uniform in her home state of South Carolina.
“It’s really exciting. I’ve got a lot of friends and family coming to watch me, so it’s going to be a really neat, supportive environment,” Holland said.
Holland might feel at home in the Colonial Life Arena, but the rest of OSU might not find the venue as supportive of the Buckeyes. South Carolina packs its home arena, leading the NCAA in women’s basketball attendance for the first time in program history with an average of 12,293 fans.
Preseason All-Americans collide
OSU and South Carolina each are led by prolific All-American guards named Mitchell with similar styles. Both were also named their respective conference’s preseason player of the year and led their teams in scoring and assists a season ago.
OSU’s Kelsey Mitchell averaged 24.9 points and 4.1 assists per game last season. The 2014-15 co-Big Ten Player of the Year set a Big Ten and OSU record, scoring 873 points while also breaking the NCAA record for most threes made with 127.
South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell, a 5-foot-9 senior, averaged 14.4 points with impressive efficiency, as she hit 50 percent of her shots and drained 41.6 percent of three-pointers.
The Mitchells have not met despite the similar position, role and name, but OSU’s Kelsey Mitchell said she respects the other’s game.
“I’ve never seen her play. But if they say she’s amazing, she’s amazing,” Kelsey Mitchell said.
Nonconference gauntlet begins
Last season, OSU played just two ranked teams in nonconference play, beating No. 21 West Virginia and losing to No. 24 Georgia. An easier early slate of opponents benefited the young, inexperienced team dealing with several injuries to key players.
But this year, high expectations will be tested early. Friday’s game against No. 2 South Carolina begins a three-week period in which the Buckeyes are scheduled to face the top three teams in the nation.
In OSU’s home opener on Monday, the Scarlet and Gray hosted the defending national champions, No. 1 Connecticut. On Nov. 28, the Buckeyes head to Las Vegas to take on No. 13 Texas A&M in the South Point Shootout before traveling to South Bend, Indiana, to battle No. 3 Notre Dame on Dec. 2.
South Carolina, Connecticut and Notre Dame reached the Final Four last season, as did No. 9 Maryland, which OSU is scheduled to face twice in conference play.
“As a coach, the players we were trying to recruit want to play against the best teams in the country,” McGuff said. “And secondly, I just like to figure out where we need to get better. If you’re winning every game by 20, 25, 30 points, you’re not going to know where you can get better.”