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Column: Can a streaking Ohio State make a run in the low-parity world of women’s hoops?

At least the Big Ten has some momentum. 

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

In a sport where parity is even less of a reality than it is in the college football universe, it can be hard to stand out. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken the AP Poll time to notice that the Ohio State women’s basketball team, which rose to No. 22 in the rankings this past week, has been on a run.

The Buckeyes are winners of six-straight, their last loss coming on the road against then-No. 9 Michigan at the end of December. Most recently, Ohio State beat Rutgers 80-71 in Piscataway Sunday, but the real story came last Thursday when the Buckeyes earned a win over then-No. 12 Maryland — their first signature win of the 2021-22 season.

Against Maryland, junior shooting guard Jacy Sheldon scored her 1,000th-career point on her way to a double-double on the day, while senior shooting guard Taylor Mikesell had a career-high 33 points.

These performances are not anomalies for an Ohio State team that boasts one of the nation’s best offenses. The Buckeyes collectively are third in the nation in scoring offense, anchored by Sheldon, who is 10th in the country in points per game, averaging 21.3.

Further, Ohio State has absolutely benefited this season with the addition of Mikesell, a transfer guard from Oregon. She’s second in the nation in three-point percentage (49%) and three-pointers per game (4). Mikesell came just in time following a season-ending knee injury to junior point guard Madison Greene in November.

In short, things look to be moving in the right direction for a team that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2018. However, things don’t get easier as the Big Ten season continues. Now, Ohio State looks to avenge its December loss when the Buckeyes get No. 7 Michigan at home Thursday night. The Buckeyes will then have to turn around and face No. 23 Iowa and the nation’s leading scorer in sophomore Caitlin Clark.

Of course, making the tournament is no guarantee of success. Despite all their success in winning the conference in the mid-2000s, the Buckeyes were never able to make the leap beyond the Sweet Sixteen (though five Sweet Sixteen appearances in 13 seasons is nothing to be scoffed at).

That’s because there’s a wall in women’s basketball that few can get past, because there has historically been minimal parity across the universe of Division I women’s basketball. At the very top, UConn has 11 titles, and Tennessee eight. That’s right: UConn has won nearly a quarter of all NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball tournaments ever played since their genesis in 1982.

It doesn’t widen much beyond the top. Of 46 tournaments played, 31 titles are held by just seven programs. In all, just 15 programs have won at least one NCAA Tournament.

However, this state of parity (or lack thereof) has begun to marginally shift. The past four national champions were not named UConn or Tennessee and, in fact, were four different programs. Earlier this month, UConn fell from the top-10 of the AP Poll for the first time since 2005. We’re even seeing some new blood in the rankings for the first time in years (Ole Miss just made an appearance at No. 24 — the Rebels’ first time in the polls in 15 years).

Parity takes time to break apart, but it’s clearly better for the sport when it happens. We’re seeing, as the first great generation of long-tenured coaches leaves college basketball, the next generation is emerging.

In a direct line, seven of the late, great Pat Summitt’s former players are current head coaches of Division I women’s basketball programs (and one Division II program). These coaching trees are certainly contributing to expanding parity, though, unfortunately for the Big Ten, several of these programs are concentrated in the SEC.

There is another factor that is bringing more democratization to the holistic basketball ecosystem, and that’s women’s professional basketball as a pathway to coaching. As the WNBA has grown since its founding in 1996, so have the seeds been planted to enable women’s basketball at the collegiate level to balance power over a broader ecosystem rather than with just a few teams. For example.Dawn Staley, who made her name as a six-time WNBA All-Star, is now coaching South Carolina, and won the NCAA Tournament in 2017. The Gamecocks also happen to be the current top-ranked team in the nation.

Additionally, there’s the visibility that the success of USA Basketball in the Olympics have garnered: Seven-straight gold medals have inspired a new generation of basketball players.

Further, the sport of women’s basketball has simply grown organically since these first coaches took the helm. When Summitt started her head coaching career, she was just 22 years old and a recent grad from UT-Martin. It was simply a different game. Also the story of her rise is bananas and deserves more space than this tiny paragraph offers.

Which brings us back to the Big Ten generally and Ohio State in particular. Currently, there are five Big Ten teams ranked in the latest AP Poll, led by No. 6 Indiana and No. 7 Michigan. It also doesn’t hurt that the Big Ten inherited Maryland in 2014, since the Terps haven’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 2010.

The Buckeyes are just half a game back from Indiana in what’s a tight race at the top of the Big Ten. With nine games left on the schedule, Ohio State is putting the puzzle pieces together to make a run in the Big Ten and, if the pieces fall in exactly the right way, be in the right position to take advantage of the fragmentation we’ve seen at the top of the women’s basketball universe.