Losing a basketball team’s starting guard to injury is hard to overcome. Losing both starting-caliber facilitators is a whole different level. That’s the environment at UConn, losing top-ranked Azzi Fudd on Dec. 7 for three-to-six weeks and college superstar Paige Bueckers for the season with an ACL tear.
It doesn’t get the same attention as the Conn-sphere, but the Ohio State Buckeyes women’s basketball team is going through similar problems. Now, the Scarlet & Gray prepare for the start of their toughest stretch of the year, and they’re doing it in a different way.
The 2022-23 season started off like a dream for the Buckeyes at point guard. Senior guard Jacy Sheldon amassed 27 steals in the first four games, led the Buckeyes past a No. 5 seed Tennessee Volunteers and was the catalyst for the start of Ohio State’s best start to a season in 11 years.
Then, Sheldon went down with a lower leg injury, missing two games before returning for the ACC/B1G Challenge against the Louisville Cardinals. As is the case of every game the Buckeyes have played this year, it ended with a victory, but it created a loss for Ohio State. Sheldon hasn’t played since that Nov. 30 win in Kentucky.
It’s not ideal, but the Scarlet & Gray had Madison Greene — a redshirt junior who started for the Buckeyes in the 2020-21 season before requiring season ending knee surgery in the week leading up to the start of the 2021-22 season. Greene didn’t bring the same out-of-this-world number of steals as Sheldon, but brought a steady defensive presence, assists on offense and better control of the ball than any other Buckeye.
The starter turned back-up turned back into a starter, leading the way in seven games before Dec. 20. That’s when Greene went down clutching her knee in the final minutes of regulation against the USF Bulls. Within a minute of hitting a deficit-cutting three, Greene was in serious pain on the court, with teammates in tears near the scorers table and on the bench.
Wednesday, head coach Kevin McGuff announced after the Buckeyes’ 81-48 victory over Northwestern that Greene’s done for the remainder of the season. Also, there’s no sure timetable for Sheldon’s return, although it’s likely this season. Those injuries create a hole for the Scarlet & Gray, but so far coach McGuff’s “point guard by committee” is working.
That’s what the coach McGuff calls Ohio State’s current position at point guard. Unlike UConn, the Buckeyes don’t have a star-studded list of five-star recruits at the position. Instead, they have a pair of guards who bring different skillsets to the role. The primary name being Rikki Harris.
Greene’s injury put the Buckeyes in a tough position. Ohio State had less than 24 hours to incorporate another point guard, with a match-up against the then No. 16 Oregon Ducks looming, but Harris stepped up. The Indianapolis, Indiana area guard had eight assists in the 84-67 win over the Ducks, a career high.
That continued after the holiday break against the Wildcats. Harris had eight points, eight rebounds and six assists. Ohio State features two underclassmen in the starting lineup, so it’s assumed that it’s tough for them to adjust to the revolving door at point guard, but it’s the opposite.
“She’s (Harris) a really good playmaker,” said sophomore forward/guard Taylor Thierry. “She’s able to handle the ball, look up the court and see who’s open. Just a really good facilitator and its helpful. It showed in this game.”
That facilitation comes with Harris turning off any of the ego, or missing the chance to be more of a point-scorer. She’s making her young teammates better.
“She also puts a lot of trust in us,” said freshman forward Cotie McMahon. “She wants us to get the bucket more so than herself. That’s really good to have as a point guard.“
Another good thing to have as a point guard is Taylor Mikesell playing alongside you. That’s what Harris has but lately, Mikesell’s role has changed. When Harris goes to the bench to rest, Mikesell’s sliding into the point guard role and its paying dividends. Mikesell’s had nine assists in the two games since Greene’s injury. Also, nine steals and 14 rebounds. It’s a surprise for everyone except for the people she sees day in and day out — her teammates.
“We all know she’s a great shooter but it goes back to what I was saying about we’re all versatile,” said Thierry. “We all can do multiple things and today it showed she was able to execute in other areas.”
That versatility Thierry talks about spreads across the roster too. The five starters for Ohio State all move around the offensive side of the court, can shoot from deep and force turnovers on defense.
This means, at least on the surface, the Buckeyes aren’t showing any panic. Instead, players are stepping up to the challenge. To the team, it’s no big deal.
“We practice with Rikki (Harris) at the one, T-Mike (Mikesell) at the one, Rikki at the two, T-Mike at the two, so we’ve all seen different kinds of positions, we’re all kind of used to it,” said McMahon. “It’s nothing major. It has been a little bit of an adjustment, but nothing too crazy.”
Now, the committee of the Buckeyes welcome their biggest test when the Michigan Wolverines come to town on New Year’s Eve. Win and maybe it isn’t such a big deal?