To say this week is a gauntlet for the No. 2 Ohio State women’s basketball team is an understatement. For the second time in four days, the Buckeyes face a team in the AP Top 10, something that usually doesn’t happen until the late rounds of the NCAA Tournament. This time around it's the No. 6 Indiana Hoosiers.
Before the game, there are a few areas to watch closely in the matchup, including a second consecutive game against one of the best bigs in the conference, is guard Jacy Sheldon’s return imminent, and more as the Buckeyes travel to Bloomington, Indiana.
Using Monday as Motivation
At this level of basketball, one step below the professional ranks, a student-athlete doesn’t need much motivation to compete. Especially against a team who’s one of the main challengers for the conference title. However, Monday’s loss should give Ohio State an extra boost.
All season, the mantra from head coach Kevin McGuff has been playing with competitive character. That means playing with the intensity he knows the team is capable of for 40 minutes.
Outside of the first quarter against Iowa, and part of the third, the Scarlet & Gray didn’t have it. The strength of that competitive character following a tough loss, the first of the season, is crucial.
“I feel like we’ve handled success really well but now we have to handle a loss,” said forward Cotie McMahon following Monday’s loss. “So, this will really determine who we are as a team in Indiana.”
How the Buckeyes start and finish Thursday’s game, and all points in between, is crucial for the remaining nine games of the season.
Does Ohio State Set Their Press?
Against the Hawkeyes, Ohio State forced 17 turnovers. Not bad considering Iowa is a veteran team, but it was still below their average. Against the Hoosiers on Thursday, they face a more difficult test.
Indiana head coach Teri Moren plays a different style than Iowa’s run-and-gun type offense. The Hoosiers are methodical with the ball (but they will exploit space quickly), and outside of freshman guard Yarden Garzon play a roster full of upperclassmen leaders.
Leading them is guard Grace Berger. After missing eight games with a knee injury, Berger returned on Jan. 8, against the Northwestern Wildcats, and picked up where she left off. Berger is averaging 13.2 points and 5.4 assists per game, both above her season highs.
If Ohio State has trouble getting their shots to fall and therefore takes more time getting their press going, Berger and Indiana can hurt them in the half-court.
Berger’s surrounded by weapons on the floor like the aforementioned Garzon who’s second in the team in scoring (12.3 ppg) and hitting 50% from beyond the arc. Alongside Garzon is Sydney Parrish, the Oregon Ducks transfer originally from Indiana returned to her home state and gave the Hoosiers another shooter on the perimeter.
Against Iowa, the Buckeyes had some defensive possessions where their half-court set stopped the Hawkeyes. In the third quarter, they held Iowa to no points in the final 5:56 of the quarter. While holding any team to no scoring is a tough bar to set, that kind of energy and movement on defense is required for Indiana all game long.
While Berger doesn’t have the same other-worldly passing ability as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, she’s still top ten in the conference averaging over five assists per game, and a lot of them go to a player not even mentioned yet.
The most dangerous of all teammates is center Mackenzie Holmes.
Slowing Down Holmes
For the second game in a row, Ohio State has to contend with a player who makes life difficult inside the paint.
In any normal NCAA career in the Big Ten, Holmes is the frontrunner to win the conference’s Player of the Year honor, but Iowa’s Clark exists. Holmes is second in the Big Ten in scoring (21.9), rebounding (9.4) and blocks (1.7).
Last season, Holmes scored 42 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in two games against the Buckeyes, 30 of those points coming in the Buckeyes' first Big Ten conference game of their eventual regular season championship season. Ohio State lost that game 86-66, but put up a better fight in the B1G Tournament.
In Indianapolis, the Scarlet & Gray held Holmes to 12 points and three rebounds in a much closer 70-62 defeat. That game gives hope to Buckeye fans that Ohio State can slow Holmes down again, while she’s on a historic clip.
This season, Holmes is on her way to becoming only the 11th player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and eight rebounds and shoot at least 60% from inside the arc. That would put Holmes in the same conversation as former Iowa center Megan Gustafson and Baylor star Brittney Griner.
Against Iowa, the Buckeyes' moments where they slowed Czinano down came when substitute forward Eboni Walker was on the floor. That doesn’t mean Walker will get the start over forward Rebeka Mikulasikova, but the Slovakian did struggle against Czinano, who scored 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting.
If Mikulasikova’s shot doesn’t fall early, and Holmes has a strong start, it might be more Walker inside the paint.
It also wouldn’t hurt the Buckeyes if they had one of their best players available in guard Jacy Sheldon.
Jacy Sheldon Return?
This is an unfair storyline but it’s going to follow every game until the Buckeyes guard returns. On Tuesday, coach McGuff shared on TheNextHoops Locked On WBB Podcast that Sheldon will return “very soon.”
There’s no specific game attached to that “very soon,” but it is promising for Ohio State.
When Sheldon is on the floor, the full-court press is more effective. Sheldon averages six steals per game this season, including a game where she grabbed 11 steals, tying the program record.
The guard has the uncanny ability to be in the right place to stop the opposing team’s forward momentum, and the speed to force mistakes and bad passes.
Also, the guard averaged close to 20 points per game last season, making her scoring missed over the 15 games she’s missed in 22-23.
Sheldon’s also returning only when she’s 100% healthy. Conditioning-wise, Sheldon’s been swimming during her injury to keep her endurance at a high level. So, if Thursday happens to be the day, it isn’t for 10 or 15 minutes. The intent is to have Sheldon back and playing at a high level.
If Sheldon returns, Indiana will be more disrupted than without her. When the Buckeyes force turnovers, it creates more solo layup chances and trips to the free throw line on 2-on-1 situations. Anything to keep the Hoosiers out of their flow is a positive for an Ohio State team that hasn’t beaten Indiana since Jan. 28, 2021, a run of three straight defeats.