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Four Storylines: No. 13 Ohio State women’s basketball vs. No. 12 Michigan

Looking ahead to a regular season game with a lot on the line.

Ben Cole - Land-Grant Holy Land

It’s the final week of the Big Ten regular season for the Ohio State women’s basketball team. Although the postseason doesn’t begin until March 1, the Buckeyes trip north on Monday to face the Michigan Wolverines has major implications on the postseason.

Plus, what will the Buckeyes look like with guard Taylor Mikesell taken out of the offensive side of the court, injuries impacting both teams and more.

Win secures double-bye

The Big Ten Tournament is a five-day event where any team has the chance to punch their ticket to March Madness if they win their conference tournament. Outside of the automatic bid the winner receives, there’s already a handful of conference sides with their names on the tournament bracket in permanent ink.

So, what does Monday have to do with all of that? Both the Wolverines and Buckeyes are destined for basketball after the conference tournament. However, Ohio State is on the outside of the NCAA Tournament committee’s top-16, meaning the Buckeyes would travel for the first two rounds of the tournament.

A win on Monday secures a top-four finish in the conference, a double-bye into the third round of the conference tournament and strengthens the Scarlet & Gray’s resume.

Even though Michigan has three games left, they sit a half game back in the standings. Should Ohio State win, Michigan can’t catch them with the tiebreaker being head-to-head record, which the Buckeyes would have a firm grasp on after beating their rivals on Dec. 31 in Columbus.

Should the Buckeyes fall to the Wolverines, who sit ahead of Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament ranking, the Buckeyes would need to beat the No. 8 Maryland Terrapins on Feb. 24 and hope the Wolverines drop a game against either the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Wisconsin Badgers. Both are games the Wolverines enter as heavy favorites.

If Ohio State wins Monday in Ann Arbor, it doesn’t mean that they can sit back and relax against Maryland, but there’s less weight on the shoulders of the Buckeyes should they clinch top-four status.

Injuries for Michigan

On New Year’s Eve, the Buckeyes were a month removed from the last time guard Jacy Sheldon suited up in scarlet and gray. Ohio State got the victory despite Sheldon’s absence that’s now stretched to the final week of the season, playing just once since a Nov. 29 trip to the Louisville Cardinals.

While injuries are awful and it's by no means only a Buckeyes problem, the Michigan Wolverines are going through their own major loss with guard Laila Phelia. Michigan’s sophomore guard started 22 games this season until suffering an injury against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Jan. 29.

The lower body injury’s kept her in a boot and out of competition for the Wolverines. However, it’s only hurt the Maize & Blue once — on Thursday against the No. 2 Indiana Hoosiers.

Michigan, like Ohio State, has five losses in the Big Ten to similar opponents. Indiana, Maryland and the Iowa Hawkeyes have all beaten the Wolverines, plus their defeat to the Buckeyes.

In the New Year’s Eve game, the Buckeyes mostly neutralized Phelia, allowing only nine points on 3-for-13 shooting. Replacing Phelia in the lineup is guard Jordan Hobbs, who’s averaging eight points and five rebounds per game in the starter’s absence. Compare that to the 17 points per game Phelia averaged before going down with her injury.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 12 Nebraska at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What bodes well for Ohio State in that game is that the bench for the Wolverines scored two points the entire game. They came from guard Greta Kampschroeder, who’s also potentially out for Monday’s game with an injury of her own.

Does Jacy Sheldon return?

The big question game in and game out is, “does Sheldon return tonight?” Coaches, trainers and doctors at Ohio State are the only people who can answer that question.

Over the past month, head coach Kevin McGuff’s referenced getting Sheldon back to her pre-injury form for the stretch run, but with only two games left its hard to imagine that still being the case.

Sheldon’s status is still day-to-day. On Feb. 5, Sheldon made her lone appearance of the 2023 calendar, playing 25 minutes with five points and five rebounds in the lopsided 90-54 Buckeyes defeat at the hands of the Terrapins.

Last week, coach McGuff admitted that he didn’t like the way Sheldon looked against Maryland, citing that her movements were off and not just because rust needs shaken off. It’s a player-first decision, which should be the case especially for a college student, but it’s a hard pill to swallow for Ohio State on the court.

If the stretch run goal is still in place, only having two games left of the regular season feels like a “now or never” like situation for Sheldon’s return. Bringing the guard back for a conference tournament where the Buckeyes would consecutively for up to four days doesn’t seem feasible.

Four on four basketball

Should Sheldon miss Monday’s game against Michigan, it’ll be another game where Mikesell won’t have any room to breathe.

Since the beginning of the calendar year, teams have found the way to beat the Buckeyes: limit Mikesell. That’s done by having a defender stuck on the Northeast Ohio guard like glue and not give her any space to work or shoot.

It’s worked against the best teams too.

In all five losses this season, Mikesell’s shot under her 17.4 points per game average because regardless of the defensive set, once the Buckeyes are in their half court offense, there’s someone in the face of Mikesell with a hand or body. That’s with or without the ball.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 13 Womens Indiana at Ohio State Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

That means the offensive production falls to the other four Buckeyes on the court. In most cases its forward Cotie McMahon and guard/forward Taylor Thierry.

Against Penn State, Mikesell hit three attempts from deep, but they came off quick shots on screens made by teammates. Don’t be surprised to see Michigan take the same defensive strategy and they’ll perform it better than the Nittany Lions. The Wolverines defense gives up the second fewest amount of points per game in the conference, allowing only 62.3 points per game.

The only way Mikesell will see chances is if the other Buckeyes can get off to a hot start, and limit turnovers. On Thursday, point guard Rikki Harris showed that it doesn’t all have to fall to Mikesell. For the fourth time this season, Harris hit multiple threes in a game. It was a welcome sign for the Buckeyes guard after struggling from deep in the last three weeks.