Year two of the Kevin McGuff era in Columbus was a strange and wonderful ride for the Ohio State women's basketball program. A slew of preseason injuries forced the squad to essentially compete with just an eight-player roster, but a once-in-a-generation freshman helped spur the team to a Big Ten tournament final appearance and its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2012.
After a 24-11 season, and with a majority of the team returning, the Buckeyes have gotten a lot of love from the media in the preseason. Nearly every national publication has the team ranked in the top-25, with the team appearing at No. 6 in the preseason AP poll and No. 10 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll.
"I really like our team," McGuff said at Big Ten media day in Chicago in October. "Obviously, I like the way we finished last year and the way we were playing. I think [the players] are hungry to get back and to have an opportunity to play in the postseason and advance."
Expectations have not been this high for the program since the days of Katie Smith. But a daunting schedule, featuring the top three teams in both preseason polls in defending national champion Connecticut (No. 1), national championship runner-up Notre Dame (No. 3), and final four participant South Carolina (No. 2), awaits Ohio State.
A fiercely competitive Big Ten conference schedule, which will include two battles with last season's other final four team, Maryland (No. 6 in USA Today, No. 9 in the AP), will also ensure that whatever success McGuff's squad finds, it will be earned.
"We really kind of have created a culture of competition within our program," McGuff said. "So each year is a new year, new beginning, new opportunity to build new identity for the team. I think at this point everyone's bought into the fact that they're going to be able to contribute to our success."
How special of a season the Buckeyes have will be dictated in large part by the play of the backcourt. Kelsey Mitchell, who was tabbed as a first team All-American by nearly every national publication after leading the nation in scoring as a freshman, was named Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year at media day. The Cincinnati native averaged 24.9 points per game in her first collegiate season, shattering the program's record books.
Joining Mitchell in the backcourt will be senior Ameryst Alston, herself a two-time All-Big Ten performer, who averaged 19.8 points per game a season ago. The two guards will power a high-paced offense for McGuff.
"The thing about Am and Kelsey both is, number one, they just want to win," McGuff said at media day. "And, secondly, they make their teammates better."
Ohio State returns all five starters from last season's club, including sophomore center Alexa Hart, its leading rebounder and shot-blocker, senior guard Cait Craft, and sophomore guard Asia Doss.
Senior day was a lonely affair for the Buckeyes in 2015, as just one player, Amy Scullion, exhausted her eligibility. Scullion, who was originally foregoing her last season of eligibility due to medical school, rejoined the team when the aforementioned rash of injuries depleted the roster.
Next woman up
While players like Mitchell, Alston, and Hart figure to play big minutes, a serious improvement over last season is the depth on the bench. Junior forward Shayla Cooper, who transferred from Georgetown and became eligible last December, was second on the team in rebounding despite playing just 23 games. Duke transfer Sierra Calhoun and redshirt freshmen Kianna Holland and Makayla Waterman, both of whom sat out last season with torn ACLs, also figure to join the rotation.
"I would tell you that there's a good chance we won't start the same kids [as last season]," McGuff said. "But we do have a lot of kids that are going to have meaningful roles."
With a balanced, versatile squad and a pair of stars in the backcourt, Ohio State is primed for big things in the 2015-16 campaign. Despite an extremely tough road, there is no reason to believe that the Buckeyes cannot be serious contenders for a Big Ten championship, and beyond that, a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
With McGuff at the helm and Mitchell leading the charge, this team has an opportunity to raise its national stature, and perhaps even put Ohio State's men's team in the rearview mirror this season.