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Five Storylines: No. 16 Ohio State women’s basketball vs. No. 20 Tennessee Volunteers

Rickea Jackson’s availability, containing Rocky Top, rebounding and more

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joseph Scheller/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The start of the 23-24 season for the Ohio State women’s basketball team has been mostly favorable. In six games, the Buckeyes are 5-1 with the lone defeat coming on Nov. 6 against its only ranked opponent to date in the USC Trojans. Now, as the calendar changes to December, the scarlet and gray face its first of two, and maybe three, ranked opponents to close out the year. First up are the Tennessee Volunteers.

Before Sunday’s 5:00 p.m. ET tipoff, here are four storylines to watch as coach Kevin McGuff’s side travels south to Knoxville.

Rickea Jackson’s Availability

Tennessee’s success against Ohio State hinges on the availability of forward Rickea Jackson. The graduate senior, playing her final season before likely going as a lottery pick in the WNBA Draft, hasn’t seen the court in the last five Volunteers matchups, recovering from an ankle injury.

Head coach Kellie Harper hasn’t put a timeline on Jackson’s return, saying it’ll happen when the training and medical staff say it can happen. The hole left by Jackson’s absence is large.

Jackson is a 6-foot-2 forward who hurts teams with scoring and rebounding, although the graduate senior was mostly neutralized in last year’s matchup between the Big Ten and SEC sides. That’s because Jackson was playing her first game on a new team, following three seasons with the Mississippi State Bulldogs. This year, the team is Jackson.

In two games for the Vols this year, Jackson averages 22 points and 12 rebounds, and it’s not coming from a game you’d expect. The forward didn’t pad stats early against a small non-conference side but against a ranked Florida State.

Against the Seminoles, Jackson went off for a personally historic performance. In the narrow 91-92 defeat for the Vols, Jackson scored 31 points and grabbed a career single-game high of 17 rebounds. Jackson outrebounded fellow starters 17-12 and led the game in scoring.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

It isn’t clear if Jackson will still be out on Sunday, but it isn’t guaranteed. Even so, the Vols aren’t an easy win without Jackson. Although Tennessee is 3-2 with Jackson on the bench, on Wednesday, during the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge, Tennessee held its own against the No. 18 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, losing 74-69.

Big Game Jacy Sheldon

Ohio State’s had a wide variety of names leading the way game-in and game-out so far this season, but the one to watch Sunday is guard Jacy Sheldon. When the Buckeyes faced its toughest competitors this year, like the Trojans and defensive battles against the East Carolina Pirates and Oklahoma State Cowgirls, it’s been Sheldon consistently stepping up.

Sheldon’s led the Buckeyes with a 23.3 points per game average in those games, and scoring in different ways. Against USC and Oklahoma State, the guard turned steals into points. Against East Carolina, Sheldon scored 12 of her 20 points from beyond the arc. Sheldon is a chameleon, bringing different looks to each game.

Against Tennessee, it could be another strong game from deep. In two of the Vols' three losses, it’s been the three-point shot doing them in, allowing 13 and 10 in losses to the Seminoles and a lopsided defeat to the Indiana Hoosiers.

The Vols gave up 10 threes only twice in the entire 22-23 season, showing the impact of losing now WNBA rising star Jordan Horston. That favors Sheldon, who leads Ohio State in shooting from deep with 12 makes on the year, but that can benefit others in the offensive attack.

Diverse Scoring

While Sheldon continues to show why WNBA general managers wanted her to leave the NCAA last season, Ohio State is going to win through team basketball.

The aforementioned shooting defensive woes for the Vols will benefit more than Sheldon. The Buckeyes are working towards a team where anyone in the starting five can hurt you from deep. All five have hit from beyond the arc this season, and when they’re on, they’ll make it difficult on defenses.

Watch to see if the Buckeyes test from deep early. The more Ohio State hits those shots, the more room it gives on the inside. That Vols' defeat against the Hoosiers shows the formula. While the Scarlet and Gray don’t have forward Mackenzie Holmes, coach McGuff’s side has players who can attack the basket better than most in the conference.

Indiana beat Tennessee hitting 10 three-pointers, five alone from guard Yarden Garzon, and outscoring the Vols in the paint 32-18. If threes go in for Ohio State, forwards Cotie McMahon and Taylor Thierry will get more space to run from the perimeter to the post. It also allows forward Rebeka Mikulášiková more one-on-one chances to move in the paint, spinning towards the basket as she’s known to do.

Buckeyes Energy

Ohio State’s synonymous with a blistering full-court press, the kind of defense that forced 27 turnovers from the Vols last season, but that’s not the energy to look out for Sunday. It’s on the boards.

Look at the Buckeyes’ runs in games this year, alongside them is strong rebounding. Against Oklahoma State, the Buckeyes played their best in the first and fourth quarters. Ohio State outrebounded the Cowgirls a combined 30-13.

In the second quarter of that game, when the Buckeyes were held to 12 total points, Oklahoma State outrebounded Ohio State 20-7. After the game, McGuff cited a downtick in the team’s energy in the second quarter.

When Ohio State is up in games, and lets that intensity dip, it allows players to box out Buckeyes in the paint, or beat them to the spot altogether.

Thierry is key for the Buckeyes’ rebounding on Sunday. The guard/forward hybrid’s been everywhere this season, sitting seventh in the conference in rebounding per game with 7.7. Of those, 3.2 are on the offensive boards. The Vols don’t have center Tamari Key at the levels she was before the start of last season before a heart condition took the center out for the rest of the year. Key’s been back this year but in a much more limited role.

USC v Ohio State Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

If Jackson is out, Thierry has even more of an advantage in the department. Should Thierry and the Buckeyes’ energy allow for the rebounding margin to go in their favor, it gives Sheldon, McMahon, and other scarlet and gray players the chance to push overall team intensity higher, making life difficult for the Vols.

Silencing Rocky Top

The marketing angle taken by the SEC is “it just means more.” While those sorts of things can be cliché, you can’t argue it by looking at a Tennessee basketball crowd.

Tennessee’s led the NCAA in scoring 11 straight seasons, back in the years of legendary head coach Pat Summit. While numbers have dipped due to the Vols backtracking from former NCAA Championship-filled glory, Tennessee is creeping back up into pre-COVID-19 attendance numbers.

Last season, the Vols averaged 8,150 people per game at Thompson-Boling Arena. Expect another large crowd in Knoxville on Sunday, and they’re going to be loud.

Rocky Top is known as one of the loudest fan bases in women’s basketball. Current championships or not, Tennessee fans are devoted and will let the Buckeyes know Sunday afternoon.

What can silence it for Ohio State is that full-court press and a strong shooting day. If anything, the loud environment might help the Buckeyes in the press, causing more havoc for Tennessee players as they try to move the ball up the court against the 10-second clock.

The Buckeyes have played in hostile basketball environments before. Last year, in Louisville, Kentucky, coach McGuff’s side came back from 14 points down to dominate 96-77. Even look at the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in Seattle, Washington. Ohio State played a nationwide favorite UConn Huskies and came away with the victory in front of a crowd leaning heavily towards head coach Geno Auriemma’s side.

If the game goes the Buckeyes’ way, as the crowd’s intensity dies down, so might the intensity from the Vols on the court.