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Four Storylines: No. 2 Ohio State women vs. No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes

Some intriguing pieces to watch in a top Big Ten event

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

In Big Ten women’s basketball, there are a few games to circle on schedule release day. It’s a conference with multiple college basketball powers, especially so far in the 2022-23 season. A game that might get an extra circle or two for Ohio State women’s basketball players and fans is a visit from National Player of the Year candidate Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes.

While Clark is an obvious focus, there are other storylines to watch Monday night as both teams face off on ESPN2. Here’s what to watch.

Does Jacy Sheldon Play?

Anytime the Buckeyes come up in conversation, it doesn’t take too long before guard Jacy Sheldon enters the narrative.

The 2021-22 unanimous First Team All-B1G guard started this season off on a historic clip. In five games, the Dublin, Ohio native amassed 30 steals, including a game against the Boston College Eagles where Sheldon’s 11 steals tied a single-game program record.

Sheldon hasn’t played since a Nov. 30 trip to then No. 16 Louisville Cardinals, due to a foot injury that started as day-to-day and got downgraded to week-to-week, but the Buckeyes kept winning.

Thursday, there was a visual update to the status of Sheldon on the court before the Scarlet & Gray’s 84-54 win over the Northwestern Wildcats. Sheldon was out of the boot on her right foot for the first time since the end of Nov. and off crutches. Does that mean she plays? Not necessarily.

Head coach Kevin McGuff’s been clear that Ohio State is playing the long game on Sheldon’s injury. Having her available against a top team like Iowa is great, but agitating the injury again and potentially missing postseason basketball is worse than playing without the guard.

Also, if she does manage to play against Iowa, is it in a starting role? Does it make sense to play her a few minutes or trust the team that’s won 14 games without the guard? A lot of eyes will be on pregame warm-ups to see if Sheldon is standing off to the side or throwing up practice shots.

Does Rebeka Mikulášiková Continue Return to Form?

Over the past two games, Slovakian forward Rebeka Mikulášiková is back to playing the way she did to start the season. Mikulášiková is more selective and efficient from deep. hitting five of her eight attempts from deep against the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats.

Also, Mikulášiková is scoring inside, scoring 43 points in the past two games and missing only one of her seven free throws.

When Mikulášiková is on, defenses can’t leave her open on the perimeter and can’t give her space to run inside the paint, because she’s been working on that ability to attack the rim. After the first eight games of the season where she averaged almost 20 points per game for the Scarlet & Gray, Mikulášiková cooled down and had problems with turning the ball over, mostly on travels.

Now, she’s worked through it in practice and hasn’t been giving the ball up on those moves. Against Northwestern, if the 6-foot-3 forward didn’t have a three open, and had one-on-one coverage, Mikulášiková started running. Plus, when Mikulášiková is playing well, other players like guard Taylor Mikesell are open.

Last year, Iowa couldn’t stop Mikulášiková, who scored 17 points on 5-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Her impact isn’t just offensively either.

Against the Cornhuskers and Wildcats, Mikulášiková’s defense was also on display. Nebraska forward Alexis Markowski was held below her 9.4 rebounds per game average. Then, on Thursday, Northwestern’s leading scorer, forward Caileigh Walsh, scored three points and had three rebounds. Walsh entered the game averaging 12.5 points and 5.6 rebounds.

Ohio State will need that play from Mikulášiková again because Iowa features the present and future of dominant conference bigs.

Managing Rebounds

The Buckeyes can’t afford to have a game as they did against the USF Bulls or Illinois Fighting Illini. Ohio State was outrebounded in each of those games and allowed Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu of USF to score 34 points and 17 rebounds and Illinois’ Kendall Bostic to score 27 points and 15 rebounds.

Now, coach McGuff’s side isn’t known for winning the rebounding. The Buckeyes just recently recovered from a negative rebounding margin to now sit at +.1 rebounds better than their opponents. Iowa doesn’t have that problem.

Iowa features center Monika Czinano and freshman substitute Hannah Stuelke. This season, Czinano’s scoring is down slightly, averaging 17.9 points per game instead of her 21.2 points per game last season. However, what she’s lost in scoring was picked up on the boards. Czinano has her best year of rebounding yet, grabbing 6.6 per game.

When Czinano goes to the bench, it doesn’t get any easier. Stuelke averages 4.8 rebounds in her first year in the conference, an impressive feat. She can also make moves around the basket and make things difficult for opponents.

Ohio State will have to stay close in rebounding, making it a busy night ahead for Mikulášiková, forward/guard Taylor Thierry, and forward Cotie McMahon. Someone to help in that department is substitute guard Hevynne Bristow.

With a long wingspan and ability to jump up for loose balls, Bristow’s grabbed 22 in the last three games, including eight against the Fighting Illini in the comeback win.

Limiting second-chance points for Iowa is crucial. Especially since those two post players don’t even lead the Hawkeyes in the category.

Can Caitlin Clark be Stopped?

Clark leads Iowa with 7.8 rebounds per game, mostly on the defensive end of the floor. Those rebounds are the most dangerous of all. When Clark gets the ball, the Iowa offense gets to work and moves down the floor quickly.

That means Clark gets into spots to shoot or find teammates to shoot. Teammates like McKenna Warnock and Kate Martin. This year, Clark started the year with her most efficient shooting of her NCAA career, but it’s dipped in recent games, and Thursday against Michigan State might have shown the secret to slowing her down.

In the overtime win for the Hawkeyes, Clark scored 26 points overall but only 19 in regulation. That’s because Sparty was agitating the guard all game. Small tugs on her jersey and physical play limited Clark’s effectiveness, going 6-for-19, far below her over 46% field goal percentage entering the game.

Last season, Clark scored 43 points against the Buckeyes, but this is a new season. On Since 1899: An OSU WBB Podcast, Big Ten lead commentator Sloane Martin discussed another way to limit Clark: Putting a tall athletic player on her. Could Thierry help in limiting Clark’s effectiveness?