The future of Big Ten basketball returns Monday, as the Ohio State women’s basketball team faces its second challenge against a soon-to-be ex-Pac 12 team. After dropping the season opener to the USC Trojans, the Buckeyes have an opportunity for redemption against the other Los Angeles side in the No. 2 UCLA Bruins.
If the scarlet and gray want to compete, there’s a 6-foot-7 center standing in their way. Her, plus a group of strong underclassmen from the West Coast side, requires the Buckeyes’ strengths consistently for 40 minutes.
Here are five storylines to watch heading into Monday night’s marquee matchup in not only the Big Ten, but the NCAA as a whole.
A main storyline of Monday isn’t if center Lauren Betts is going to have a big game. The better question is how big? The sophomore transfer from Stanford University went from a freshman who averaged less than 10 minutes per game to the star of a UCLA Bruins team full of stars.
Betts leads the No. 2 team in the nation in both scoring and rebounding, almost averaging a double-double with 17.0 points and 9.7 rebounds. At 6-foot-7, there’s nobody on the Buckeyes who can match her size. The center plays like a traditional big. Betts will get near the paint, back into her defender and spin, or force, her way to the rim for high percentage shots.
The only way to possibly limit the center is getting her in foul trouble, but that’s not exactly easy as the sophomore has upperclassmen patience and discipline. Betts hasn’t had more than one foul per game in the nine starts she’s had with the Bruins.
She’s the kind of player Ohio State’s had trouble with over the past two seasons. The game might elicit flashbacks of University of South Florida’s Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu’s 34 points and 17 rebounds performance against the Buckeyes last December. Also, the 27-point, 15-rebound performance by University of Illinois’ forward Kendall Bostic in January.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Ohio State won both of those games, even though it saw double-digit deficits. While Betts won’t likely be neutralized, the best bet for head coach Kevin McGuff’s side is making life difficult on the other four Bruins on the court.
Defense around the arc
On Nov. 24, the Bruins faced the UConn Huskies in a main event-style billing in the Cayman Islands. The game was much more of a vacation for the Bruins than the Huskies.
UCLA led the entirety of the game, once being up as much as 23 points against the perennial college basketball power. What hurt UConn wasn’t Betts directly, who had a “quiet” 13 points and seven rebounds. The center helped UCLA indirectly because the defense was so focused on playing in the perimeter that Bruins guards had a field day.
Leading the day were guards Kiki Rice and Charisma Osborne. When the offense UCLA offense moved down the court, and pressure built around Betts, Rice and Osborne hit their shots. Osborne led the day going 6-for-10 from beyond the arc, and Rice following behind going 2-for-4. Rice’s other 18 points in the team-leading 24-point performance came going at the basket and pulling up for midrange shots.
Rice is a force. In that game against UConn, Rice benefited from the added attention to Betts and grabbed 11 rebounds. In terms of running the offense, she also had eight assists, putting her within two of a triple-double. Stopping Betts means trying to stop Rice.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, graduate guards Jacy Sheldon and Celeste Taylor have been in strong defensive form to start the season. While still developing their partnership after Taylor joined in the offseason out of Duke University, the two don’t get players much time to breathe. As long as Ohio State gets back quickly on transition defense, Rice, Osborne and other Bruins won’t have the same easy looks as they had against UConn.
For that to come to fruition, Coach McGuff will need a 40-minute consistent performance from the duo of guards. Both Sheldon and Taylor seemingly have endless energy, so stamina shouldn’t be a worry. Stopping shooting and making passes difficult, all while staying out of foul trouble, will be the real worries.
Defeating Team USA teammates
Speaking of Rice, both her and guard Londynn Jones reunite with a teammate on Monday night: Sophomore forward Cotie McMahon. Together, the trio won the U18 Americas Championship in 2022 and most recently brought home the gold in the FIBA U19 World Cup.
The Buckeyes don’t need motivation to play the No. 2 team in the country, but consider it a little extra “oomph” for McMahon. Friday night, the forward only played 17 minutes against NCAA Division II side Grand Valley State — maybe in an effort to keep her ready for Monday.
Ohio State’s offense will need a complete McMahon performance, even with Betts patrolling inside the paint. McMahon’s ability to get to the basket, and draw whistles, could be what the scarlet and gray needs early in the game to not allow the Bruins to get off to a hot start.
Since starting the year with a difficult day against the USC Trojans, scoring seven points and turning the ball over five times in 34 minutes, McMahon’s been strong and consistent. The forward averaged 18.1 points in the seven games following the defeat to the Trojans.
The most impressive came a week ago against the Penn State Nittany Lions. McMahon had 27 points and eight rebounds, her strongest performance of the young season. While those were needed points, especially considering McMahon had a slow start and came on strong in the second half, the most important piece of the stat line when considering Monday’s opponent is the season-high three steals. McMahon will need to be an active participant in the press.
Next level press
Ohio State will need its havoc-inducing press to have a standout performance on Monday. UCLA has stars on its roster, but feature a team of predominantly underclassmen. While those sophomores like Rice and Jones are younger, they still have international experience. Also, the Bruins have six of the top 100 recruits combined from the last two years.
However, an experienced group of Ohio State graduate seniors can leverage that additional time in the NCAA game to exploit the Bruins as often as they can. That means forcing turnovers and not missing chances on the extra offensive possessions created.
Because of the Buckeyes’ defensive prowess, they average seven more shot attempts per game compared to their opponents. Against USC, Ohio State allowed more overall shots to the Trojans, and USC hit over 50% of their attempts on the night. Compare that to the Buckeyes who shot only 39.7% on the day.
Since that Nov. 6 defeat, the Buckeyes’ offense is improving with additional game experience for new players. Ohio State only had nine assists against USC, in the seven games that followed the scarlet and gray averaged 18 per game. While the opponents haven't been up to the caliber of a USC or UCLA, its in those games where players grow chemistry. Monday will test how strong of a bond the offense has built over the last month and a half.
Rebounding. Rebounding. Rebounding.
With Betts on the court, Ohio State isn’t likely to win the rebounding margin, but it has to win all of the close chances it can. Friday, the Buckeyes took a step back in rebounding though, being out rebounded by the Grand Valley State Lakers 30-25.
“If we rebound like that on Monday, it’s going to be a long night, I can assure you,” said Coach McGuff following the win. “So we’ll have to really get back at it, make sure we’re on point in practice.”
That means McMahon and Thierry, the primary targets for rebounds, will be battling the likes of Betts and the Bruins inside the paint. However, when Sheldon and Taylor get rebounds, good things happen.
Both bring intensity to the court, and in stretches this season that ability to get around players turned into Sheldon and Taylor getting under the basket and taking advantage of lax rebounding attempts by opponents.
In the 20-point route of the Tennessee Volunteers, Taylor led the game with 12 rebounds, and seven from Sheldon, against a taller SEC team. That’s with 6-foot-6 center Tamari Key in the game for 16 minutes, a season high following heart concerns that cut the player’s 22-23 season short.
When shots go up, expect Sheldon and Taylor to join the fray in the paint. While it may not mean a rebounding performance in Ohio State’s favor, taking anything away from the Bruins will be a long way in staying competitive.