There’s a lot going on Monday night at the Schottenstein Center, on the Ohio State University’s campus. The No. 2 Ohio State women’s basketball team welcomes the No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes for a conference battle in front of close to a sellout crowd. Adding to an already high level of excitement is the return of a former Buckeye great, current WNBA player Kelsey Mitchell.
Mitchell brought her basketball craft to the Buckeyes from 2014-2018, earning a long list of accolades. The guard won the 2015 Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Year. In four years, Mitchell earned a 2016 First Team All-American spot and three Second Team All-American places.
A look into the program’s history book is littered with Mitchell’s name. The guard leads Ohio State women’s basketball in games played (139), starting every single one without missing a contest. Mitchell’s 3,402 points are first overall for any Buckeye and second in the history of NCAA women’s basketball. Her 24.5 points per game haven’t been matched by anyone on the Scarlet & Gray either.
Monday night is Mitchell’s return to the women’s basketball team since becoming the first No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick from Ohio State, in 2018. The five years away doesn’t lessen the connection to the program.
“It’s kind of like a surreal feeling honestly,” said Mitchell. “I haven’t been there in a while because of my being a professional. It’s one of those ones where it's like ‘family is family’ and being a Buckeye and being able to have that fan base to support me, I’m just super grateful, to be honest.”
That support will be in full force Monday night. Monday afternoon, the program announced the game sold out all available tickets, making it the largest attended game this season. There are a few reasons for the added interest.
Mitchell’s attendance coincides with a visit from arguably the best player in the nation in Iowa guard Caitlyn Clark facing an undefeated Ohio State team. The Buckeyes sit atop one of the toughest conferences in the country and are one win away from tying a program-high 20-game winning streak. Achieved twice but not since the 2005-06 season, when most players on the current team were barely in kindergarten.
Although Mitchell’s trip was shortened slightly due to snow that hit the Midwest over the weekend, the guard will have a chance to talk with the team before Monday’s game. The current WNBA star isn’t planning on giving advice for the game, but supporting the Buckeyes who already possess the intangibles that’ve helped them come back in five games from down double-digits.
“Being undefeated period, it doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Mitchell. “The biggest part I'm proud of is how they’re handling it all. Being one of those teams that haven’t lost and being able to still perform at a high level is just amazing. It just goes to show the work that they’ve obviously put in and just buying into the culture and the program.”
Although Mitchell is a name synonymous with Ohio State women’s basketball, her name and number aren’t going up into the rafters on Monday, according to a team source. Mitchell is also visiting in partnership with the WNBA.
It’s a natural progression from supporting collegiate players while they’re at school and moving into the professional ranks, but there’s still room to grow the relationship. Mitchell’s one of a few players the league is working with to help spread the growth of a game that’s already hitting new levels of viewership and support.
National games for the United States’ top women’s professional league grew 22% from 2021 to 2022. The WNBA app, where fans can sign-up for the WNBA League Pass, increased subscriptions by 10% last season, and merchandise sales across the league jumped 50%. There’s still plenty of room to grow, and Mitchell knows about the product well.
Although Mitchell hasn’t been selected as an All-Star in her five seasons, which is a snub in the opinion of Land-Grant Holy Land, the guard’s been near the top of the league in scoring for a team regularly near the bottom of the standings, although that’s changing.
The Indiana Fever brought in a large group of rookie talent last season and this year holds the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft for the first time ever.
“The future is bright for where women’s basketball is headed and if you haven’t been watching, you better start because it's going to be a switch that gets flipped for the game of women’s basketball,” said Mitchell. “There’s a lot of talent in the league and I think you get into that whole thing about men or women and I think it's less about the gender and more about the quality of basketball and I think the women’s side of things plays it well.”
It’s also about respecting the game, which Mitchell stresses the WNBA does in its own unique way. It’s a similar battle the Buckeyes have been on this season.
Although they won the conference co-championship last season, attendance was the lowest in the then nine-season tenure of head coach Kevin McGuff. Sure, COVID-19 played a part but teams across the country saw increases that stretched numbers from pre-COVID years.
Respect is finally coming Ohio State’s way, after going 19-0 to start the season.
Time will tell how Monday’s game plays out, but Mitchell’s fight from college to the pros echoes the play of the Buckeyes this season. It’s an appropriate time to honor someone so pivotal to the success of Ohio State’s program.