If there were questions as to whether Kevin McGuff was the right person to lead the Ohio State women’s basketball program when he was hired, his first three years on the job have surely dispelled them. Under McGuff’s leadership, the Buckeyes have gone 67-37, and have risen to be among the elite teams in the country.
As a new season gets underway on Friday, expectations are high in Columbus. Ohio State is ranked No. 6 in the country in the coaches poll and No. 7 in the AP poll, and are seen as a serious contender for a Big Ten title and a run to the national championship. The squad was bounced from the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16 by Tennessee a year ago.
The Buckeyes have something no other program has: Kelsey Mitchell. The dynamic junior point guard is coming off an All-American season in which she averaged 26.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, leading the top-scoring offense in the Big Ten conference.
Around Mitchell will be a collection of faces both familiar and new. Gone are program pillars Ameryst Alston and Cait Craft, who were indispensable in assisting the program’s transition to McGuff’s tenure. With them goes nearly 23 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 3 steals per game, not to mention invaluable leadership.
Ohio State should be able to fill the void that Alston’s and Craft’s production on the court leaves, with five regular rotation players returning, four transfer students possessing impressive resumes joining in, and a trio of freshmen who count among them a McDonald’s High School All-American and the players of the year in the states of Ohio and Illinois. The cupboard is far from bare for McGuff.
So who can fans of the Buckeyes expect to see contributing on the hardwood when the season tips against Duquesne at St. John Arena? Let’s take a closer look at the 2016-17 squad.
Mitchell will of course be the focal point of this season’s Ohio State team, but she isn’t the only player that fans will be familiar with. The quartet of Shayla Cooper, Asia Doss, Alexa Hart, and Makayla Waterman all played significant roles in last year’s 26-8 campaign, and will all be back in the fold.
Cooper, who in her first full season with the Buckeyes after transferring from Georgetown was named second-team all-conference, was the team’s third-leading scorer a year ago at 13.3 points per game, and led the team in rebounding with 8.1 per game. Mostly used in the sixth man role, the Georgia native still played starter’s minutes.
Along with Cooper on the front line is Hart, who in her two years in the program has developed into a defensive monster. Hart was also a second-team All-Big Ten honoree last season after averaging 10.8 points and 7.8 boards per game, and also made the all-defensive team after ranking second in the conference with 86 blocked shots.
Waterman also gives Ohio State depth in the frontcourt as she enters her second season. In 14.3 minutes per game off the bench as a redshirt freshman, the former ESPN top 100 prospect averaged 3.1 points and 3.8 rebounds, and earned a reputation for having an extremely high motor.
Perhaps none of the returning players is as key to the Buckeyes’ success this season than Doss, a scrappy two-guard known for her tenacious defense and speed running the floor. Doss averaged 7.0 points, 2.6 assists, and 2.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore, and showed an improved shooting stroke from the three-point line, making 39 percent. With the departure of Alston, the former Detroit Country Day star will be looked to for increased offensive production.
All total, these four key returnees bring back more than 34 points and 22.5 rebounds on a nightly basis, providing a solid complement to the scoring ability of Mitchell, and serving as anchors for the Ohio State defense.
One big difference for McGuff this season will be the amount of depth he has at his disposal. The Buckeyes have had notoriously thin rosters the past three years, but with four transfers in the fold, could for the first time in the head coach’s tenure have a real rotation.
Chief among these players is forward Stephanie Mavunga, who transferred to Columbus from the University of North Carolina. Mavunga was a first-team All-ACC selection two seasons ago as a sophomore for the Tar Heels, racking up 15 double-doubles and averaging 14.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Her scoring and rebounding ability should blend in nicely with Hart in the paint.
Another ACC transplant is guard Sierra Calhoun, a former McDonald’s High School All-American who began her collegiate career at Duke. Two seasons ago, Calhoun averaged 10.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game as a freshman for the Blue Devils, and gives Ohio State another backcourt scoring option to go along with Mitchell.
Redshirt junior Kianna Holland was actually a part of the Buckeyes’ roster last season after transferring from Duke as well, but due to soreness following ACL surgery on her knee, appeared in only three games. She did average 7 points in those three games, and is known for shooting ability from long range.
One more new face with a decorated resume is Linnae Harper, who comes from the University of Kentucky. Harper was an All-SEC freshman selection three seasons ago and a defensive selection two seasons ago, and has the distinction of having been the only player in the nation 5-foot-8 or under to average more than 7 rebounds per game during 2014-15.
All four of these players bring a skillset that meshes well with what the Buckeyes are bringing back, and each should see substantial playing time. The luxury of having real depth on the roster is something McGuff will need to make an adjustment to, but it’s a good problem to have.
The extra depth may mean less playing time for the three new freshmen that have entered the program. Perhaps the extra time to adapt to the college game and observe the veterans will pay dividends for what is a highly-touted trio of recruits.
According to ESPN's rankings, Ohio State brought in the 8th-ranked class in the country this year, consisting of three five-star recruits. ASGR, previously known as All-Star Girls Report and one of the largest scouting organizations of women's high school basketball in the country, has the Buckeyes in the top spot nationally, as it also takes transfer students into account.
This year’s class is highlighted by Tori McCoy, a 6'4" power forward from Champaign, Illinois. McCoy was the No. 10 prospect in ESPN's rankings, and No. 4 according to ASGR. McCoy is another McDonald’s All-American selection on the roster.
Joining McCoy are point guard Kiara Lewis of Chicago's Whitney Young High School, the 22nd-ranked player according to ESPN (17th by ASGR) and Illinois’ Gatorade Player of the Year, and Jensen Caretti, a 6'1" forward from Hannibal, Ohio, who was ranked 31st (33rd by ASGR) and named Ms. Basketball in the state.
McGuff has proven that he recruit at a high level, and with this latest influx of talent, the Buckeyes are poised to be contenders in the Big Ten and nationally for the foreseeable future.
What to expect
If last weekend’s scrimmage against Ashland University was any indication, Ohio State is still a work in progress. Blending the new players in with the returnees will take time, particularly on the defensive end, where McGuff was not pleased with the team’s efforts.
“In many respects, that’s probably the best thing for us; a little bit of a wake-up call before we start playing games that count,” he told The Lantern.
The games begin to count on Friday afternoon, and with all the Buckeyes have on their roster, the squad is expected to perform at an elite level. The expectations are a testament to the work the coaching staff has done both on the recruiting trail and in the practice gym, and together have the makings for the most exciting season in years.