The stakes are high for the No. 5 Ohio State women’s basketball team. If the Buckeyes fulfill their potential and advance further in the tournament than they have since 1993, they could play host to the Final Four. But if things go wrong, Ohio State could be looking at an early exit from the NCAA tournament and a bleak future, since the team will graduate five key players.
Since head coach Kevin McGuff arrived in 2013, Ohio State has yet to reach beyond the Sweet 16, where its season ended the past two years.
Preseason All-American guard Kelsey Mitchell has led Ohio State in scoring the past three years and will once again be the offensive catalyst in her final collegiate season. The preseason Big Ten Player of the Year leads a high-paced offense which averaged 85.7 points per game last season, the fourth-most in the country.
A first-team All-American in 2016 and a second-team All-American in 2015 and 2017, Mitchell has owns the program record for most points in a single season (889 in 2015-16) and the Big Ten record for most career 3-pointers made (368). Though she would need to average more than 27 points per game, which she has never done in a single season, Mitchell has a chance to break former Washington guard Kelsey Plum’s NCAA record for most career points scored. The 5-foot-8 guard led the Big Ten with 22.6 points per game last season.
“She’s an unbelievable player,” McGuff said. “It’s great to see her get the recognition she truly deserves. There’s not a person in college basketball working harder than she is. Those results have been shown on the court. She’s a great kid, great leader, and an unbelievable work ethic.”
Mitchell will be joined in the starting lineup by three guards and one post player, redshirt senior Stephanie Mavunga. Mavunga was honored as a preseason All-Big Ten selection and was picked for the second-team All-Big Ten last season, despite missing 13 games due to injuries. She became the third player in program to average a double-double last season with 11.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
Guards Linnae Harper, Sierra Calhoun and Asia Doss will accompany Mitchell and Mavunga in the starting five. Harper enters the starting lineup after being named the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year last season. Though Harper stands just 5-foot-8, the redshirt senior offers Ohio State the ability to use her as a guard or inside due to her scrappy style. The former Kentucky transfer averaged 8.4 points and five rebounds per game last season.
Calhoun, one of the team’s top shooters, started every game last season and put up 9.5 points per game. She will play a similar role to last year — when she was second on the team with 68 3-pointers made and first with 38.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc— as an off-ball shooter. The team’s most effective defender, Doss finished with 41 steals last game and will be one of the key components of an Ohio State defense which must improve.
Last season, the Buckeyes gave up an average of 71.5 points per game, 313th-best in the country. McGuff has focused on improving defense and rebounding in the offseason with the hope of correcting the team’s most prominent weakness.
“Overall, our defense has just not been good,” Mitchell said at media day on Oct. 10. “I’m not going to lie to you, it’s been bad all four years I’ve been here. We’ve been good in spurts, but it’s bad because we can’t piece it together for the whole season.”
Though Ohio State possesses a talented starting lineup, its depth leaves much to be desired as it has just nine players on scholarship, two of which have scarcely played. The graduation of forward Shayla Cooper and transfers of a pair of talented freshmen — guard Kiara Lewis and forward Tori McCoy — left Ohio State with less-than-optimal depth. Any key injury during the season could devastate the Buckeyes.
Senior forward Alexa Hart and redshirt junior forward Makalyla Waterman will be the two most important players off the bench, but both have dealt with injuries which kept them on the bench for the first of two exhibition games. Hart, a 6-foot-3 post player, will be key for situations in which Mavunga gets in foul trouble. A stretch forward, Waterman will help replace Cooper, who averaged 10.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game last season.
McGuff has heralded sophomore guard Jensen Caretti as someone who had a good offseason and could make a substantial leap. She played 17 games last season, but scored just 40 points and dished 20 assists.
“We need her to be good,” McGuff said at media day on Oct. 10. “We need her to step up and to have the season she’s capable of having.”
McGuff-led Ohio State has never shied away from playing some of the top teams in the county in its early season nonconference schedule. That will not change this year.
The Buckeyes will challenge themselves again this season as the kick off the 2017-18 campaign with top-10 matchups against No. 10 Stanford at 6 p.m. Friday at St. John Arena and versus No. 9 Louisville at 4 p.m. Sunday at Nationwide Arena.
“It’s always a big game coming right out,” senior guard Kelsey Mitchell said. “But I think we’ve prepared ourselves. I think we’ve done everything that we needed to prepare for a team like Stanford. It’s all about just going out there and trying to do it.”
Though Ohio State returns most of the core players on a team that made the Sweet 16 last season, McGuff said he never truly knows what the team will look like until it steps onto the court for the first regular season game.
“We’re going to find out something. We’re going to find out where we’re at one way or another,” McGuff said. “They have a great team, they’re one of the best in the country. We aspire to compete with those types of teams, so we’re going to find out where we’re at.”