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Ohio State women’s basketball faces tough road in new season

The Ohio State women’s basketball team gets the 2016-17 season underway on Friday, and the road ahead won’t be easy.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Sioux Falls Regional-Ohio State vs Tennessee Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State will tip-off the new season at noon on Friday at St. John Arena in Columbus against a Duquesne team that went 28-6 a season ago and fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament against eventual national champion Connecticut. It will serve as a good barometer of where the team is at, and how far it will need to go if it hopes to contend for a national championship.

Duquesne is one of the many quality teams the Buckeyes will face in the 2016-17 season. Game No. 2 will pit head coach Kevin McGuff’s squad against South Carolina, which is ranked third in the nation according to the coaches poll and fourth according to the AP. It’s the kind of schedule Ohio State hopes to emerge from battle-tested for March, much as it was last year.

The Buckeyes will also travel to Storrs in December to take on the preseason No. 1 team in the land in UConn, and will also face nationally-ranked Miami (FL) as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge during the non-conference portion of the schedule. The team will also take part in the Gulf Coast Showcase tournament, where a meeting with Syracuse, another top-15 team, could take place in the second round.

Once conference play gets underway, things won’t be much easier, though the schedule does do Ohio State a favor of sorts. The Buckeyes will be contending with Maryland, the preseason Big Ten favorite that is No. 5 in the coaches poll and No. 6 in the AP, as well as Indiana and Michigan State squads that each appear in one poll, and Michigan, which is just on the outside looking in at the top 25.

Where the Big Ten’s scheduling may give Ohio State an advantage, though, is that each of those four contenders show up only once, and the Maryland game will be played in Columbus. The Buckeyes will instead face Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin twice apiece as part of the unbalanced schedule.

So what does this mean for Ohio State? Given the fact the team has perhaps the best player in the country in Kelsey Mitchell and a supporting cast of veterans who have grown up on the court together and three high-profile transfer students, the tough non-conference slate and relatively light Big Ten schedule set up the Buckeyes to be a major force come March.

"I feel like we're one of the teams that have got enough talent and depth and balance that we could make a run at the national championship,” McGuff told ESPN.

While it certainly won’t be a small undertaking, the heavyweights like UConn, Notre Dame, Baylor, and South Carolina are not head and shoulders above the rest of the country this season thanks to the WNBA draft and the growing frequency of transfers. Parity, for the first time in quite some time, could be the name of the game.

And that sets Ohio State up as a serious contender. The Buckeyes have offensive firepower, true depth for the first time in McGuff’s tenure, and a road through the conference that appears on paper to be utterly navigable. The season is here, the speculation ends, and the question of whether the program’s first Final Four berth since 1993 can be attained will begin to be answered on Friday.