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Five Storylines: No. 17 Ohio State women’s basketball vs. Michigan

The Buckeyes look for a fourth straight against rivals, a return to last season’s form, strength of schedule and more as conference play begins

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 20 Women’s Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

So far in the 2023-24 season, each Big Ten team’s had a small taste of conference play. Ohio State women’s basketball and the Michigan Wolverines each won their lone conference game, with the Buckeyes needing overtime and the Wolverines dismantling the Illinois Fighting Illini. Saturday at noon, the remaining slate of Big Ten games begins and it's a second straight game for the scarlet and gray against a team fighting in the upper half of the conference.

However, which Michigan will show up against Ohio State? That and four other storylines to get you ready for a hardwood edition of The Rivalry.

Continuing Rivalry Wins

Looking at the rivalry’s big picture, it hasn’t gone the way of the maize and blue too often. Since 1978, Ohio State holds a convincing 59-16 lead in the women’s basketball series. Anyone who’s paid attention to the sport though knows that the game of today is growing at leaps and bounds, and of late the Wolverines have been part of that bump. Even so, recent history still leans towards the Buckeyes.

Since the start of the 2020 calendar, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have taken turns running away with victories. In the last nine games, the results go three wins in a row for Ohio State, three wins in a row for the Wolverines, and then last year the Scarlet and Gray won all three, including one in the Big Ten tournament. Saturday, head coach Kevin McGuff’s team has a chance to buck the recent trend.

Ohio State and Michigan are two teams at vastly different levels. The Buckeyes are pushing to that next level of college basketball, hoping to compete in the Final Four, one step further than last season’s Elite Eight run. Michigan had to adjust last season with the loss of forward Naz Hillmon to the professional ranks. Then, after the 22-23 campaign, lost two more staples in guard Leigha Brown and forward Emily Kiser.

Saturday, it’s hard to know which Michigan will show up.

Wolverines Finding Themselves

Entering the first 23-24 edition of this matchup, the Wolverines are 10-3. In that record are the typical blowout wins over smaller division sides, but a few games stick out. Most notably, a lopsided win that didn’t go the Wolverines' way, against mid-major Toledo Rockets of the Mid-American Conference.

For a second season in a row, the Rockets got the best of the Wolverines. Last year was a 71-68 home defeat for the Maize and Blue. At the time, it was Michigan’s first loss of the season, sitting No. 14 in the AP Poll.

This year, it showed how different the Wolverines are this season.

Michigan fell, in Toledo, and fell hard. The Rockets blew past the Wolverines 69-46. Toledo forced 19 turnovers in front of a sold-out crowd at the John F. Savage Arena. The maize and blue’s shooting was fitting for the arena’s name, going 3-for-14 from beyond the arc. Only guard Laila Phelia could muster up offense for Michigan, the lone player hitting double digits on the day, with 16 points.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 06 Women’s - Michigan at Toledo Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s the lowest point-scoring total for the Wolverines this season, but not the only game where they were held to less than 50 points. Michigan also fell to the University of Mississippi with 49 points.

While Michigan has shown fight this year, going away to Harvard, a tough Ivy League team, and coming back after going into halftime down, it’s still an upward climb for the Wolverines. The team has new names from the transfer portal, and it's taking the team longer to come together as a result.

Cotie McMahon Scoring

Only twice in the one-and-almost-a-half season for sophomore forward Cotie McMahon has the Buckeye had three games in a row with single-digit scoring. The first batch was in McMahon’s second, third and fourth NCAA games and the second was over the last three games.

Against Grand Valley State, UCLA, and Belmont, McMahon scored six, seven, and one point respectively. Facing NCAA Division II GVSU, McMahon only played 16 minutes in a game that didn’t require much in terms of a member of the Scarlet and Gray taking over the game.

Facing the No. 2 UCLA Bruins, McMahon’s usual moves to the basket were stifled by 6-foot-7 center Lauren Betts.

That doesn’t mean that the forward isn’t making an impact. McMahon had 13 combined rebounds in the first two games of her current scoring lull. Also, just having McMahon on the floor gives teammates more room to move in the offensive half-court.

Against Belmont though, McMahon looked frustrated. Not receiving the calls she had so often last year, McMahon had one foul go in her favor. The forward ended up playing 24 minutes, hitting one of her two free throws and adding three rebounds and a block.

Michigan will bring a bigger challenge than either Grand Valley or Belmont and McMahon’s known for rising to the occasion. In the 2023 Big Ten Tournament, McMahon scored 28 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against the Wolverines. Should that kind of form return Saturday, it’ll go a long way in starting the Buckeyes’ 23-24 Big Ten campaign on the right foot.

Rikki Harris and Eboni Walker Improvement

In the last month of the 22-23 regular season, guard Rikki Harris and forward Eboni Walker key for the Buckeyes. Both filling in for injured teammates, the duo brought upperclassmen experience and intensity to the court when Ohio State needed it.

The postseason saw Harris go to a bench role with the return of a recovering Jacy Sheldon, but Walker continued to start through the end of the season. This season though, things changed for both.

Forward Rebeka Mikulasikova returned to the starting lineup and a 100% Sheldon slotted back into the point guard role next to graduate senior transfer, and National Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist, guard Celeste Taylor. Plus, the addition of forward Taiyier Parks and the return from injury to Madison Greene put questions around both Harris and Walker.

On Friday, before the Buckeyes had off for the Christmas holiday weekend, both reminded people how they were key pieces of the 2022-23 playoff run. Against a Belmont University team that’s shocked ranked sides in the past, foul trouble for Mikulasikova and lack of production for Parks put Walker back into the fray.

Walker had a season-high with 21 minutes, many of which came in the second and third quarters when Ohio State was still battling. The two-time transfer from Las Vegas, Nevada added strong defense not only in the paint but leveraging agility and size to guard around the perimeter. Then Walker added a season-high seven rebounds and eight points on 4-for-5 shooting.

Harris not only had a highlight reel steal and three at the end of the second quarter but was also a defensive force. The redshirt senior had four steals and committed no turnovers for Ohio State. A game-impacting performance like her 23 points, seven steals and five assists the last time Harris played in Ann Arbor, on Feb. 20, 2023.

Both had games reminiscent of last season, but will one dominant game by both change the strategy for coach McGuff heading into conference play? Likely not, but a repeat of these performances can make the Buckeyes more apt to bring in the two when matchups call for it.

All Big Ten From Here

Including Saturday, there are 17 games remaining in the 23-24 regular season and they’re all going to be in-conference.

That includes a stretch of seven-straight Sunday games against the likes of a surprising Michigan State Spartans team, Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes and Mackenzie Holmes and the Indiana Hoosiers.

Preseason, it looked like the Buckeyes, Hawkeyes, and Hoosiers would all have a strong chance at taking the regular season championship, but strong early showings from the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Penn State Nittany Lions put things in question.

The first weekend of the remaining Big Ten schedule features a few games that will start to answer questions:

  • Saturday at 2 p.m. ET: Iowa Hawkeyes at Minnesota Golden Gophers
  • Saturday at 4 p.m. ET: Michigan State Spartans at Penn State Nittany Lions
  • Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET: Illinois Fighting Illini at Indiana Hoosiers
  • Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET: Maryland Terrapins at Nebraska Cornhuskers

For the scarlet and gray, the season culminates with a pair of tough matchups. The first is the final regular season matchup against the Wolverines, followed by a trip to Iowa to face the Hawkeyes on March 3.

Where the teams will be on March 3 is a mystery, but the beginning of the road starts in Michigan.