In 2022-23, the Big Ten is proving itself as a top conference. Throughout its 14 teams are upperclassmen like Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, Maryland guard Diamond Miller and Indiana center Mackenzie Holmes who pull in the collective attention.
Thursday is a different type of game, when two first-year students will go head-to-head, showcasing the future. It’s between forward Cotie McMahon of the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes and guard Mara Braun of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Although they play different positions, the two freshman have similarities. Both are local to their respective universities. McMahon played at a regular Buckeye recruiting pipeline on the football side in Centerville, Ohio. Braun plays even closer to home, from Wayzata, Minnesota.
They’re also both making a name for themselves in college basketball. McMahon’s 23rd ranking was five spots ahead of Braun in 2022 ESPN high school recruiting rankings, but once they joined college, Braun excelled right away.
In Minnesota’s first two games of the season, Braun went off. Against Western Illinois and Lehigh, Braun scored 68 points. In the second game, three of Braun’s 38 points came when the Golden Gophers needed it the most — at the final buzzer.
Down 98-99, Braun hit a buzzer-beating three. It wasn’t a wide-open attempt by any means. Braun hit a catch-and-shoot with the defense in her face. That fantastic shot only gave Minnesota the win, but the freshman guard her first Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor.
While Braun’s staggering 34 points per game average to start the first week of the season hasn’t held, the guard’s still leading Minnesota with 17.4 points per game, including a double-double with 24 points and 10 rebounds in a narrow 73-70 defeat to the Virginia Cavaliers, leading to a second Freshman of the Week award.
For Ohio State, McMahon’s taken a slightly different road. The forward’s started every game for the Scarlet & Gray, but took some time to find her stride. Against then No. 5 ranked Tennessee Volunteers, McMahon made her NCAA debut with 10 points, but struggled in Ohio State’s second ranked game against the Louisville Cardinals, scoring just a point.
McMahon admits its because of time needed to adjust to the college game, and slow down a little bit to make better decisions. As McMahon began to take the advice from her coaches and teammates, her situation’s changed.
Since the tough Louisville showing, McMahon’s had a month’s worth of Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. That stretch includes four games against tough opponents in the Michigan State Spartans, USF Bulls, No. 16 Oregon Ducks and No. 14 Michigan Wolverines.
In those Buckeye victories, McMahon averaged 14 points and six rebounds. Ohio State needed McMahon the most against USF, where the Scarlet & Gray needed overtime to beat the tough Florida side. McMahon scored a career high 30 points in a night where most of her opponents offense went stagnant.
On Thursday, the only two players with multiple Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards face off, and the match-up is no secret.
“It’s definitely a competitive battle,” said McMahon. “It’s a battle between the freshmen, I think it’ll be really fun.”
McMahon also acknowledged that she’s won the award more than Braun, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more going Braun’s way through the end of the season. The thing is, Braun isn’t the only young talent Ohio State has to deal with.
“They’ve got incredible young talent, one of the most talented young teams in the league,” said head coach Kevin McGuff. “They’re not an easy team to play against, because the score the ball so well.”
Part of that scoring is another Minnesota freshman, forward Mallory Heyer. While Braun leads the Golden Gophers in the points category, Heyer is third with 11.1 points and six rebounds per game.
McGuff and the Buckeyes aren’t hoping for a game where Minnesota’s dynamic freshmen duo can show their offensive might. Instead, Ohio State’s hoping their press and push the young Gophers into mistakes.
Also, it means the Buckeyes half court defense, including McMahon, needs to keep their game up when the press doesn’t work. There’s promise in the half court defense following a better half court showing against the Michigan Wolverines on New Year’s Eve.
“Our focus in practice is mainly defense. Offense will take care of itself,” said McMahon. “Working on it in practice and then having it show in the game.”