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Big Ten women’s basketball tournament 2017 preview: Ohio State looks for tourney crown as top seed

The Buckeyes head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament this week as the No. 1 seed. Can the team bring home the championship?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Ohio State at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

For the 15th time in program history, the Ohio State women’s basketball team can call itself Big Ten champions. With their 73-45 victory over Rutgers on Sunday, the Buckeyes concluded the regular season with a 15-1 conference record, tied atop the standings with Maryland.

All eyes now turn to the Big Ten tournament, to be held this Wednesday through Sunday at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where Ohio State will play as the top seed thanks to its head-to-head win against the Terrapins. The scarlet and gray have not been in this position since 2010.

This season has been the most successful for Ohio State during the tenure of head coach Kevin McGuff, but the most meaningful games are just getting started. Let’s take a look at the state of the Buckeyes as they begin their quest to acquire more hardware.

State of the team

Ohio State is one of the two heavy favorites in the conference tourney, alongside Maryland, and head to Indy ranked No. 9 in the country. All-American point guard Kelsey Mitchell, named the Big Ten’s Player of the Year on Tuesday after leading the conference in scoring, will be the focal point for McGuff’s squad, as she has been since the day she set foot on campus.

This season, Mitchell became the fastest player in NCAA women’s basketball history to amass 2,000 career points. The Cincinnati native currently has 2,463 points, ranking third in Ohio State history, sixth in conference history, and sitting less than 1,000 away from the NCAA’s all-time mark, which is now held by Washington’s Kelsey Plum, who broke the old record this past weekend.

The difference for the Buckeyes this season as opposed to the recent past is that Mitchell is not a one-woman band. McGuff has depth the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Columbus in a decade. Ohio State has 10 players averaging at least 13.5 minutes per game, and three of those average double figures in scoring.

Senior forward Shayla Cooper, the undisputed emotional leader of the team, averaged 10.3 points and six rebounds a game in the regular season, and has the versatile game to play the perimeter, go down on the block, or slash to the paint off the dribble. Sophomore guard Sierra Calhoun, who averaged 10.1 points per contest, led the team in three-point shooting accuracy, outpacing even Mitchell, and has shown an ability to get insanely hot behind the arc.

The biggest question for the team is the health of junior forward Stephanie Mavunga, who has been out since February 9th with a foot injury. Before going down, the North Carolina transfer was leading the Big Ten in rebounding with 11.3 boards a game, and was second on the team with an 11.8 point scoring average. A walking double-double, Mavunga’s paint presence will be missed in the conference tournament, and is critical to any chances the Buckeyes have of making a deep run in the NCAA tourney.

Mavunga’s absence no doubt hurts Ohio State, but the rest of the rotation has picked up the slack admirably. Off the bench, McGuff has juniors Asia Doss, Linnae Harper, and Alexa Hart, sophomore Makayla Waterman, and freshmen Kiara Lewis and Tori McCoy to turn to. Throughout the year, each has proven to be trustworthy and capable on the court, and equal to the task of playing the elite competition the Big Ten provides.

Any team with the ball in Mitchell’s hands cannot be counted out, and the Buckeyes’ improved depth this season makes them all that much more dangerous. As the top seed in the conference tournament, Ohio State will have a target on its back, but McGuff has the firepower at his disposal to handle it.

Potential opponents

As the No. 1 seed, the Buckeyes receive a double bye, and will not play their first game until Friday afternoon against the winner of the 8/9 matchup between Iowa and Northwestern. Both opponents played Ohio State tough during the regular season, and either is capable of pulling the upset if not taken seriously.

The Hawkeyes, led by senior guard Ally Disterhoft and sophomore post Megan Gustafson, actually had a late lead against the Buckeyes when the two met in Columbus in mid-February. A late surge thanks to Iowa turnovers allowed for a victory, but this is a team that has proven it can hang with Ohio State.

The same can be said of the Wildcats, who in the second game of the Big Ten schedule, gave the Buckeyes all they could handle in what became a seven-point Ohio State win. A veteran club led by seniors Ashley Deary, Nia Coffey, Lauren Douglas, and Christen Inman, Northwestern plays a smart, physical brand of basketball. Coffey, in particular, could be a load to handle without Mavunga, as she averaged a double-double of 19.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.

Should the Buckeyes survive what should be a tough opening game regardless of the opponent, they would play Saturday afternoon against the winner between the fourth-seeded Indiana Hoosiers and their opponent, which could be Nebraska, Illinois, or Purdue.

Ohio State defeated the Huskers twice during the conference slate, both by sizable margins, and blew out Illinois. Indiana was the team’s opponent in the first game of the Big Ten season, and the Buckeyes won by 10, though that margin wasn’t necessarily indicative of how the Hoosiers were outplayed. Junior guard Tyra Buss finished eighth in the conference in scoring, and teams with fellow junior Amanda Cahill and seniors Alex Gassion and Jenn Anderson to give Indiana an experienced, balanced attack.

The rematch?

Ohio State and Maryland were clearly the class of the Big Ten during the regular season, and thus are expected to face off in Sunday’s tournament championship game. The Buckeyes are the only team in the Big Ten to defeat the Terrapins since they joined the conference, and the team’s 98-87 win just a week and a half ago was perhaps the most complete performance for the scarlet and gray all season.

Maryland led the conference in scoring, scoring margin, field goal percentage, rebounding, assists, and steals, and was in the top two or three in virtually every other statistical category. The Terps have just two losses all season: to Ohio State and to the record-breaking Connecticut Huskies, to whom they fell by just six points. Head coach Brenda Frese has a talented team that has a realistic shot of reaching the final four.

Senior center Brionna Jones is a terror in the low post, averaging a double-double with 19.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. She led the country in field goal percentage, and was the top offensive rebounder in the Big Ten. Against the Mavunga-less Buckeyes, she had 21 and nine.

Fellow senior Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is among the best guards in the country, and averaged 18.5 points, 3.8 boards, and 3.7 assists per game, while shooting nearly 44 percent from the three-point line. In the loss to Ohio State, Walker-Kimbrough put up 29 points, four rebounds, and five assists, and hit on 4-of-9 from deep.

Both players were named to both the Naismith Top 30 Watch List and the Wooden Award Late Season Top 20, and both figure to be coveted in the WNBA draft this summer.

Yet, Frese has more weapons than Jones and Walker-Kimbrough, as sophomores Kristen Confroy and Brianna Fraser and freshmen Destiny Slocum and Kaila Charles are all key contributors that helped Maryland average a startling 90 points per game.

In the three seasons that the Terps have been a part of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are 3-1 against them. Their lone loss came in the 2015 conference tournament final, a 77-74 affair that came down to the wire. Should the two sides meet with the trophy on the line again, Ohio State will have an opportunity to exorcise a few demons of postseasons past.

What it all means

The Big Ten tournament championship is in itself a worthy goal, but the Buckeyes will be playing for more than just another piece of hardware. Their performance will also go a long way towards determining their seeding for the NCAA tournament, and who they can expect to meet there.

As of this writing, ESPN’s Bracketology has Ohio State as a 4-seed, situating them in the Stockton Region. As a top-4 seed, the Buckeyes would host the first two rounds of the tournament, but would be heading on the road for a potential Sweet 16 matchup with the top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks, a team they lost to, 92-80, in the second game of the season.

Winning the Big Ten tourney, presumably by defeating Maryland for a second time, could help Ohio State to move up the ladder to a 3-seed, delaying any potential clash with a top-seeded team until the Elite 8. There are a lot of variables, and of course nothing is certain until the games are played, but the Buckeyes appear at this juncture to have a whole lot to play for in Indianapolis this week.

The ultimate success of the season is still firmly in the future for Ohio State. This week, we’ll begin to find out just how high the Buckeyes can climb.

How to watch

All games Wednesday through Saturday will be televised live on Big Ten Network and available for streaming on BTN2Go. Sunday’s conference championship game will be shown at 7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN. For a complete schedule, you can check out the Big Ten Conference’s “Tournament Central” page.