This season almost feels like destiny for Ohio State’s women’s basketball team.
With senior guard Kelsey Mitchell, a two-time first-team All-American and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, returning for her final season and a strong, veteran-laden supporting cast surrounding her, Ohio State seems poised to make a deep run in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
Head coach Kevin McGuff’s first full recruiting class in Columbus is in its fourth year in the program. Columbus will be at the forefront of collegiate women’s basketball because it will host the Final Four. Ohio State also kicks the season off with a Countdown to Columbus event featuring some of the nation’s top teams, including Connecticut, Stanford and Louisville.
Despite the talented senior class and top-two Big Ten finishes the past two seasons, the Buckeyes have fallen short of their goals as they have lost in the Sweet 16 in 2016 and 2017.
“You get tired of the same thing happening,” Mitchell said. “I think we reached a point in our lives off the court and on the court where we’ve got to make a statement, we’ve got to do what’s needed to be done.”
The seniors understand this is their last chance to break through, and McGuff said it is easier to coach a team with the sense of urgency the Buckeyes have this season.
But when taking a step back and looking past this upcoming season, which holds great promise, one thing becomes clear — the future of Ohio State seems bleak, especially when compared to the talent on this year’s team.
Ohio State’s roster consists of just nine players on scholarship. It returns seven players who have played significant minutes in prior seasons. Five of those players are either seniors or redshirt seniors. Only one player — sophomore guard Jensen Caretti — has more than two seasons of eligibility remaining. The Buckeyes did not add a single freshman or transfer this season. They only have one high-school prospect committed.
The two most promising freshmen last year, forward Tori McCoy and guard Kiara Lewis, transferred to Marquette and Syracuse, respectively. McCoy averaged 8.1 points per game in 35 appearances and 10 starts, while Lewis averaged 6.7 points per game in 35 games and 15 starts. Tim McCoy, Tori’s father, told the News-Gazette Tori left Ohio State because she was unhappy and said his daughter “was miserable every day.”
When asked what she want to achieve in her final season, Mitchell said it was simple — she just wants to be able to “play happy,” seeming to confirm the dissatisfaction of last year.
“We’ve always been a team where if something goes wrong, our season just is in shatters,” Mitchell said. “That’s how it feels. I just want everybody to play, just play as free as possible. And I think that would take care of a lot of things, myself included.”
Until three-star post Aaliyah Patty committed to Ohio State Oct. 12, the Buckeyes had not landed a commitment in 23 months. Including Patty, the Buckeyes will have three seniors, one junior and one freshman next season.
McGuff expressed displeasure at the difficulty of landing recruits, despite having four open scholarships on the current roster and just four scholarship players returning for the 2018-19 season.
“In theory, it should be easier, but people want to play,” McGuff said. “But then all of a sudden you get, ‘Who am I going to play with?’ You get all these questions, it’s different. Everybody wants to play on a great team, but play right away. It’s like, eh, those things don’t always go hand in hand. If there’s opportunity, then you can play right away and then maybe that, the group you come in with evolves into a great time, sort of like the people we have now that are seniors.”
McGuff was hired in 2013 to replace Jim Foster, whose teams did not reach the Elite 8 in his 11 seasons at Ohio State, despite the Buckeyes making the NCAA tournament in his first 10 seasons at the helm.
But McGuff’s teams have had similar issues. The Buckeyes missed the tournament his first year, made the second round in 2015 and reached the Sweet Sixteen the past two seasons. The Buckeyes have shown no challenges reaching the tournament, but the inability to advance further in the postseason has plagued the team through the past two coaching tenures.
With the loss of five seniors after this season, minimal talent returning next year and a talented, yet small group of upperclassmen in their final season, the time to strike is now.
Ohio State has not made it to the Final Four since 1993, and if the Buckeyes do not make it this season, it could be a long time until they reach this level again.
“Three years, we’ve fell short and we can’t keep having that being an excuse,” Mitchell said. “We’re either gonna get it or we’re not, and I think we have a team right now where as long as we keep going, we can make something happen.”