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Women’s Basketball: Offense-rich Ohio State continues effort to improve defense

Ohio State senior guard Kelsey Mitchell answers questions at women’s basketball media day Oct. 10. Credit: Colin Hass-Hill | Sports Editor

No one has ever questioned the prolific Ohio State women’s basketball team’s offense. Led by the 2015 and 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year senior guard Kelsey Mitchell, the Buckeyes averaged 85.7 points per game last season, the fourth-most among Division I teams.

But their defense? That’s another story.

“Overall, our defense has just not been good. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s been bad all [three] years I’ve been here,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been good in spurts, but it’s bad because we can’t piece it together for the whole season.”

So as Mitchell enters her final season, the Buckeyes’ main focus continues to be improving the often-porous defense and rebounding before they open the season against Stanford on Nov. 10.

“I feel like the kids understand one that we have to make sure we improve, so there’s a sense of urgency surrounding those two issues,” head coach Kevin McGuff said. “We’ve put more time into them than we have in the past and really kind of tried to point forward that is going to be a strong part of our identity.”

Despite finishing the 2016-17 season with a 28-7 record, a 15-1 record in the Big Ten, the regular-season conference championship, and a Sweet Sixteen appearance, the Buckeyes ranked just 313th out of 345 Division I teams in scoring defense (71.5 points per game). Only Minnesota and Nebraska, both of which finished in the bottom five of the Big Ten standings, gave up more points than Ohio State.

Ohio State women’s basketball head coach Kevin McGuff answers questions at media day Oct. 10. Credit: Colin Hass-Hill | Sports Editor

That can partially be explained by McGuff’s fast-paced, Mitchell-led offense that aims to run the fastbreak as often as possible, a strategy which each player at Tuesday’s media day reiterated would return this season. But even when accounting for the higher-than-normal scores, the Buckeyes did not defend well.

“When we don’t play defense and we don’t do the things that we need to, it’s always down to defense for us,” Mitchell said. “And when that doesn’t happen, we lose.”

Again and again last season, Ohio State allowed opposing players to score at will.

On Jan. 10, Michigan State guard Tori Jankoska drilled eight 3s and put up 42 points as she helped hand Ohio State a 94-75 loss, its only conference loss of the season. The Buckeyes later allowed Purdue guards Ashley Morrissette (24 points) and Dominique Oden (20 points) to capitalize on the Buckeyes’ rebounding struggles during key stretches as the Boilermakers eliminated Ohio State in the 2017 Big Ten tournament semifinals.

In their final game of the season, the Buckeyes were eliminated by Notre Dame, which featured guard Arike Ogunbowale scoring a career-high 32 points. In order to make the necessary defensive and rebounding improvements, Ohio State understand nothing will come easy.

“Definitely some struggles,” Mitchell said matter-of-factly. “Might take some L’s. I mean, I don’t want us to. But, I mean, if it has to come down to it, for us to deeply understand what’s at stake when it comes to defense, it might have to take some of that. Or we can get it down in practice.”

Those potential losses Mitchell referred to might come early for Ohio State as it plays a difficult early-season schedule featuring November matchups against perennial top-25 teams Louisville, Stanford and Duke. McGuff, who prefers to schedule difficult matchups early in the season, said he likes this year’s group of opponents because they each offer something different to prepare for and learn from.

“The thing I like about, if you look, it’s different styles of play too,” McGuff said. “We see a lot of different things thrown at us throughout the year. This first month and a half of the season is really going to help with that.”

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