The Ohio State Buckeyes women's basketball team returns to Columbus for Big Ten play on New Year’s Eve. For the second year in a row, it’s the Michigan Wolverines facing the Scarlet & Gray before the ball drops. It’s a game that already features rivalry, but add both teams' top-15 rankings, the Buckeyes' undefeated season, and possible revenge for Ohio State, and it becomes a heavyweight battle.
Here are storylines to watch before Saturday's 1 p.m. ET tip.
It’s not likely to come from head coach Kevin McGuff’s mouth but there has to be revenge on the Scarlet and Gray’s mind on Saturday. After three straight losses to the Wolverines, the Buckeyes want to kiss that losing streak goodbye.
Michigan hasn’t just beaten the Buckeyes in three-straight, but they’ve beaten them without much of a chance for Ohio State. In the last two games, during the 2021-22 season, the Maize & Blue won by 19 points per game. Former Michigan center Naz Hillmon, who now plays for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, put 49 points up on the Buckeyes across the two games. She was a force nobody on Ohio State could stop.
This year is different because Hillmon’s gone, but that doesn’t mean Michigan isn’t formidable. The Wolverines have beaten the ranked North Carolina Tar Heels and Baylor Bears, and leading the way in big games is Leigha Brown.
The guard hurt Ohio State last year too, scoring 40 combined points in those two games, meaning Saturday is by no means at all a cakewalk.
Coach McGuff’s side is different than last year though, and features multiple players who can go off on the scoresheet on any given night.
Last season, the Buckeyes relied on guards Taylor Mikesell and Jacy Sheldon to lead the way on offense. The Oregon transfer Mikesell launched threes at an impressive clip, even averaging 50% from deep late in the season. This season, Mikesell hasn’t been as effective in shooting, but she also hasn’t had to be.
Mikesell’s having a better season in assists, rebounds, and steals, more than making up for a slight dip in scoring. However, a cold day of scoring will hurt the Buckeyes in what’s likely to be a tough Big Ten contest.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, there are two positives for Ohio State. The first is that Mikesell’s best games of the season came against ranked teams. Mikesell scored 25, 26, and 25 against Tennessee, Louisville, and Oregon respectively. When the moment gets bigger, so do Mikesell’s performances.
The other is that Mikesell doesn’t have to do it alone this season. Multiple Buckeyes are stepping up. Freshman forward Cotie McMahon’s led the Scarlet & Gray in three of Ohio State’s last four. Forward Rebeka Mikulášiková is playing her best basketball in her four years as a Buckeye. Also, there’s the other Taylor — Taylor Thierry.
After playing mostly a defensive spark off the bench role in 2021/22, the Cleveland, Ohioan is the most consistent scorer for the Scarlet & Gray.
Thierry averages 13.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Points-wise, Thierry’s increased her scoring from her freshman season by 10.1 points. Those points are coming through confident attacks to the basket, leading the NCAA in field goal percentage at 73%.
Half Court Defense
With guard Madison Greene out for the season with a knee injury, the Buckeyes have a gap in their defense. Greene is Ohio State’s best perimeter defender, and as McMahon said following Ohio State’s 84-41 win over Northwestern, she does all the small things needed to be successful.
Without Greene, Ohio State faces a team that doesn’t shoot a ton from deep, but they can terrorize an opponent inside the arc. Michigan can shoot mid-range and attack the basket at a high clip.
In past games this season, like the season opener against the then No. 5 Tennessee Volunteers, a weakness for Ohio State was allowing players to easily attack the basket. Volunteers guard Jordan Horston put 20 up against Ohio State, plus controlled inside the paint with 13 rebounds.
To stall Brown and forward Emily Kiser, the Scarlet & Gray need to play tough defense. That means limiting easy shots and giving space for Thierry and Mikulášiková to grab rebounds.
Another way to help the half-court is Ohio State getting into their full-court press early. That only happens if shots fall.
The Buckeyes play a ruthless press, even with Sheldon likely out with a lower leg injury. Michigan is a veteran team, but so are the Buckeyes. Guards Mikesell, Thierry, and Rikki Harris are the ones to watch in the press, with McMahon making reads on passes further in the backcourt.
Make the Covelli Center Scary
A new year is about resolutions and optimism, but Saturday’s game at the Covelli Center is the perfect chance to make teams afraid of Ohio State’s alternative venue. While it doesn’t hold the same amount as the overwhelmingly quiet Schottenstein Center, the volleyball and wrestling venue down the street is loud. Really loud.
If Ohio State gets going early, that sound and the feeling of close to 3,700 fans practically sitting on the court can shake the Wolverines.
When it comes to home-court advantage, it’s about quality, not quantity.