In a transitional season for Ohio State women's basketball that didn't see the team win back-to-back conference games until the Big Ten tournament, inconsistencies and struggles were put in the rearview with impressive wins against Northwestern and Penn State. The Buckeyes came within four points of an appearance in the Big Ten title game, showing a grit and a spark that may well be a sign of things to come. As we look back at the 2013-14 season, and ahead to next year, there is reason for optimism for fans of the ladies in scarlet and grey.
A bumpy transition
When Kevin McGuff agreed to succeed Jim Foster, the winningest women's basketball coach in school history, it was apparent that Ohio State was a program in transition. Gone were recent stars like Jantel Lavender, Tayler Hill, and Samantha Prahalis, and what remained was a team without a returning player who had averaged double-figures in scoring in their career. After nine years as Head Coach at Xavier and two at Washington, McGuff was charged with injecting a new level of energy and accountability into the program.
"I'm really big on effort and intensity, the way you conduct yourself on the court and committing to doing whatever it takes for the team to be successful," he said at the team's Media Day.
The season began with adversity and a tough non-conference schedule. Junior guard Raven Ferguson, a returning starter, was suspended for the first three games of the season after violating a team rule, and the Buckeyes played four top ten teams, including mighty Connecticut, in the first month. By the time conference play rolled around, Ohio State sat at 10-6, and deficiencies on the offensive side of the ball were apparent.
The Big Ten season only served to amplify those deficiencies, as inconsistent shooting pushed the Buckeyes to the cellar of the conference in terms of scoring. Ohio State began the new year 2-1, knocking off ranked Purdue and Indiana squads, but the bottom soon fell out, and the team dropped eight of their next ten. A win against Northwestern on Senior Day ended a five-game skid, before the Buckeyes lost their final two regular season contests, finishing at 5-11 in the Big Ten.
Entering the Big Ten tournament as the 8th seed, McGuff's squad made an improbable run to the semifinals, dominating top-seeded Penn State and shattering conference tourney records in the process. After falling short against Iowa, Ohio State and their coach could still be upbeat, and have a lot to build on moving forward.
"I've said it a lot of times - if we can get everybody kind of playing at their best at the same time, I think we can have something special," McGuff said after the Penn State game. "I think that's basically what you saw. It doesn't happen all of the time, but it wasn't like there was anybody out there doing anything they can't do. We just had everybody kind of doing what they're capable of at the same time."
As McGuff looks towards his second season at the helm, job one will be to ramp up the consistency, and ensure that his players reach their full capability at the same time more often. If that happens, the team should improve dramatically on their 17-18 record.
A new star emerges
The departure of Hill for the WNBA created an enormous void for Ohio State, to the tune of 21.1 points per game her senior season. Of the returning players on the roster, there was no clear-cut heir to Hill's status as the number one offensive option. From game one, though, a new leader began to emerge in sophomore guard Ameryst Alston. After averaging 6.5 points as a freshman, Alston came out of the gate firing on all cylinders in the opener against West Virginia, scoring a career-high 29. She did not look back from there for the rest of the season, solidifying herself as the focal point of the offense, utilizing her ability to get to the rim and a streaky perimeter stroke that could light things up in a hurry when clicking. Alston finished the season fourth in the conference in scoring at 19 per game, and was named First Team All-Big Ten by both the coaches and the media.
Saving her best for last, though, Alston exploded in the first two games of the Big Ten tournament, dropping 30 against Northwestern and a career-high 33, including five three-pointers, against Penn State.
"She is a really special player and a great kid," McGuff said of his point guard after that performance.
As Alston looks ahead to her second season in McGuff's system, fans and coaches alike have reason to believe she can make a jump to being among the Big Ten's elite.
While the story of the season was the emergence of Alston, two other members of the Buckeyes squad showed development and became reliable parts of the rotation. Ferguson, who after her suspension to begin the year assumed the role of 6th man, became the team's second-leading scorer. The 5'11" guard from Columbus Africentric High School, improved upon her 6.3 points per game scoring as a sophomore to average 10.8 for the season. Despite coming off the bench, Ferguson really played starter's minutes, and was named an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten performer by the media.
With Ferguson assuming a bench role, sophomore Cait Craft was thrust into the starting backcourt alongside Alston. After playing in just 14 games as a freshman and averaging a meager 2.5 points, Craft started every game for the Buckeyes this season, logging the second-highest number of minutes on the team. The sister of a fairly well-known member of the Ohio State men's basketball team, Craft averaged 8.5 points per game, and tied with Alston for the most three-point field goal makes.
The growth of Ferguson and Craft, along with the stellar play of Alston, gives McGuff three game-tested veterans to rely on next season as the team looks to push towards the top of the conference.
While the Buckeyes' backcourt should be a strength next season, big questions exist for the front line. Centers Darryce Moore and Ashley Adams and forward Martina Ellerbe are all departing the program following their senior seasons, and take with them 23 points and 16.7 rebounds per game. Moore and Ellerbe were both starters this season, while Adams was the first big off the bench.
The only frontcourt players returning for McGuff's second season will be redshirt freshman Lisa Blair and redshirt sophomore Kalpana Beach. Blair appeared in 25 games, but averaged just 0.7 points in seven minutes. At 6'6", though, the Brooklyn, NY native has the size and the skillset to grow into a post presence for the Buckeyes. Beach, who started 30 games and averaged 5.1 points and 4.7 boards as a freshman during the 2011-12 season before sitting out last year with a knee injury, never saw the court. If the 6'1" forward from Westlake, OH can fight her way back into game shape during the offseason, she would add sorely needed size and experience.
Lighting up the recruiting trail
At Ohio State, the name of the game is recruiting, and the bar has been set incredibly high in the recent past by the likes of Jim Tressel, Thad Matta, and Urban Meyer. You can add McGuff's name to that list as well, as his first class for the Buckeyes has been rated second in the country by both ProspectsNation.com and Blue Star Basketball. The five-player group includes four members of the ESPN Top 100 prospects list.
Headlining the class is Kelsey Mitchell, a 5'8" guard from Cincinnati, who ESPN ranked as the No.1 point guard and No. 3 player overall. Mitchell, who was named to the McDonald's High School All-American team, is averaging 25 points per game for Princeton High School, and has the Vikings in the state final four. Mitchell will be joined in Columbus by her sister, Chelsea, a 5'11" forward.
The class also includes 6'2" forward Makayla Waterman (ranked 69th by ESPN), 6'3" forward Alexa Hart (82nd), and 5'7" guard Asia Doss (92nd). In addition to Mitchell, Waterman and Hart, particularly, may be called upon to make significant contributions as freshman, due to the departures of Moore, Ellerbe, and Adams, and the hole they leave in the frontcourt.
In addition to the highly touted incoming players McGuff recruited, two blue-chip transfers will enter the fold in Columbus next season as well. Freshman transfers Kianna Holland, a 5'9" guard from Duke, and Shayla Cooper, a 6'1" forward from Georgetown, enrolled at Ohio State for the spring semester and will become eligible next December per NCAA rules.
Cooper left the Hoyas after playing the first two games of the season and will be a sophomore in December. Holland, who did not play a game for Duke because of injury, will retain her freshman status. ESPN ranked Holland the No. 32 overall prospect in the 2013 class, while Cooper was No. 35.
How bright a future?
As McGuff leads the Buckeyes into his first full offseason at the helm, there is reason to believe the program is poised for an upward swing. The key will be the development of returning and incoming players and continued success on the recruiting trail.
Next season's backcourt looks to be loaded, as Mitchell, Doss, and Holland are added to the trio of Alston, Ferguson, and Craft. The biggest question, and perhaps the key to how high the team's ceiling will be, is how well a thin, inexperienced frontcourt handles the rigors of the trenches in major college basketball. If some combination of Blair, Beach, Holland, Waterman, and Hart can provide toughness on the boards and scoring on the block, Ohio State could be in a position to challenge the Big Ten's elite.
That a run to the top of the Big Ten is even in the conversation speaks volumes of the job McGuff has done in his first season as Head Coach. Moving forward, the potential is there for the Buckeyes to not only ascend to the top of the conference, but to become a force on the national stage, and return the program to heights not seen in a generation.