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Here's what Ohio State women's basketball learned from a tough non-conference schedule

The Buckeyes played one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country. How will it help them in Big Ten play?

Ohio State Athletics

The Ohio State women's basketball team finished off its non-conference schedule with an impressive 20-point win over Virginia before Christmas. The 93-73 victory pushed the Buckeyes' record to 8-3, and helped them to the No. 9 ranking in the AP Poll as Big Ten play gets underway.

"I think we're really going into the right direction," McGuff said. "I think we've emphasized the right things and our kids have responded and gotten better, so now it's just a matter of us continuing going down that path because the Big Ten is going to be very difficult."

Ohio State entered the season knowing it had one of the most difficult schedules of any program in the country. McGuff's squad began the season on the road against No. 2 South Carolina, and also had to take on top-ranked Connecticut and third-ranked Notre Dame within the first three weeks. The Buckeyes fell short in each of those games.

Since losing 75-72 in South Bend, Ohio State has won four straight. But things don't get any easier now that the conference schedule is starting. The first two Big Ten games for the Buckeyes come against No. 24 Michigan State and 6th-ranked Maryland, a final four participant a season ago.

The real season gets underway on New Year's Eve in Columbus against the Spartans. Before they tip it off, let's take a look at what we've learned about the scarlet and gray so far.

Brilliant backcourt

Entering the season, Ohio State figured to have one of the most fearsome backcourt combos in the country. Through the nonconference schedule, sophomore Kelsey Mitchell and senior Ameryst Alston have not failed to live up to those lofty expectations.

Mitchell is currently second in the country in scoring, averaging 24.4 points per game, and sixth in three-point field goals made. The Cincinnati native led the country in both of those categories as a freshman. Mitchell is shooting just under 42 percent from long-range and is second on the team in assists and steals.

Often overshadowed by her backcourt mate, Alston is putting together a fine final season for the Buckeyes. A two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, the former Canton McKinley star is averaging 19.3 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. Alston also contributes a team-high four assists a night and adds four rebounds.

At 43.7 points combined, Ohio State's brilliant backcourt accounts for more than half of the team's 86 points per game, not to mention better than seven assists, six boards, and just under three steals. Whatever success the Buckeyes find the rest of the season, it is clear that Mitchell and Alston will be the catalysts.

Paint toughness

While the offensive exploits of Ohio State's backcourt deserve all the recognition they receive, McGuff has also gotten unheralded production out of his frontcourt. The forward combination of junior Shayla Cooper and sophomore Alexa Hart have given the Buckeyes much-needed toughness in the paint.

Cooper started the first eight games of the season before serving a one-game suspension due to an incident that occurred on the bench during the team's game against Cincinnati. In the two games since returning, the former transfer from Georgetown has come off the bench, but her production has not slowed. Cooper nearly averages a double-double, scoring 11 points and pulling down a team-high 8.9 rebounds per game.

After a slow start, Hart has begun to show off her supreme athleticism down low once again. The Columbus native, an All-Big Ten freshman selection a season ago, is averaging 9.1 points and six boards a night, shooting a team-best 60 percent from the floor. Hart is also third in the conference in blocked shots, averaging more than two rejections per game.

As Big Ten play begins, the ability of Cooper and Hart to control the paint on both ends of the court will go a long way towards Ohio State's hopes for contention.

Injury bug

After last season's team basically survived with just eight players, Ohio State's depth is much better this year. Thirteen different players have seen minutes for McGuff, but injuries, suspensions, and departures have threatened the coach's rotation.

As mentioned, Cooper, along with Chelsea Mitchell (Kelsey's sister) and assistant coach Mark Mitchell (Kelsey and Chelsea's father), served one-game suspensions. Freshman Kaylan Pugh, a former four-star recruit, also announced that she would be leaving the program just seven games into her career.

Beyond those issues, injuries have limited a few members of the team who were expected to contribute. Chief among these is redshirt freshman Kianna Holland, a transfer from Duke and former finalist for National High School Player of the Year. Holland missed last season due to an ACL tear and has managed just three appearances this year due to pain. In those three games, the South Carolina native averaged 7.3 points and looked capable of complementing the offensive firepower of Mitchell and Alston.

Also seeing limited time have been junior Kalpana Beach, who has suffered knee injuries three years running, and redshirt freshman Makayla Waterman, who like Holland sat out last season with an ACL tear.

The big mo

Some might worry that a ten-day layoff before the Big Ten opener would dampen the momentum Ohio State has built during its current winning streak, but McGuff thinks the time off will serve them well.

"As much as I feel like we've got some momentum and we're going in right direction, it will also be good for everybody to spend some time with their family and get away from it for a little bit," he said.

The Buckeyes have a chance for a special season in the Big Ten and beyond that in March. After surviving one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, the scarlet and gray is hoping they have grown into that challenge.

"Hopefully we can come back with the same energy and enthusiasm and just continue to get better," McGuff said.

The Buckeyes host Michigan State in their conference opener on Thursday, Dec. 31 at 12 p.m. ET. The game will air live on Big Ten Network.