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Head coach Kevin McGuff on 10 years leading Ohio State women’s basketball

Weeks after his deepest Buckeyes postseason run, coach McGuff talks transfer portal, NIL and the future of the Scarlet & Gray

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Time, as we know it, lives in cell phones, watches and revolutions around the sun. Its measured in seconds, minutes and up to centuries and millenniums. Outside of the measurable, data-measured version, time is often times stark and hits the hardest looking into the past.

It sends shockwaves the most when looking into the past. When a glance at an old pet or now-teenage child sends you back to the moments from years past. The mundane seconds that tick behind the scenes of life add up quickly.

Milestones like when your child becomes a teenager. Looking at them and your brain rushes back to the day they were born, took their first steps or talked back to you the first time.

On April 16, 2013, the Ohio State women’s basketball team took a moment in time to announce the hiring of then University of Washington head coach Kevin McGuff to lead the Buckeyes’ program.

Coach McGuff admits he’s not the nostalgic type, thinking back on his 10-year anniversary with the Scarlet & Gray. However, he has a good way of measuring his time with the Buckeyes. Back in April 2013, the McGuff family wasn’t celebrating the move to Ohio State. They were a little busy raising a newborn.

“Our youngest son, Leks, was born on April 3, 10 years ago,” said McGuff. “I had a week old and I had to hop on a plane to come out here. Not only a week old but the youngest of six, so I was leaving a whole bunch of people back in Seattle to come start this job.”

Leaving his family in Washington with wife Letitia, whose grace knows no bounds, McGuff arrived in Columbus to begin a trek that’s now at the double-digit mark.

In the decade that followed, Ohio State’s seen the highs of deep tournament runs and the lows of sanctioned seasons. Also, the transfer portal and name, image and likeness, which didn’t exist in 2013, now dominate off-the-court conversation.

Suffice to say a lot’s changed in the past 10 years. Here are coach McGuff’s thoughts on all of it.

McGuff on the Transfer Portal

Back in 2023, on April 10, the WNBA held its annual draft, bringing the best of college basketball players to the top domestic league in the United States. McGuff was in attendance in New York, watching former Ohio State guard Taylor Mikesell wait for her name to be called.

With the first pick of the second round, the sharpshooter from Massillon, Ohio went to the Indiana Fever. Coach McGuff shared the moment across social media, showing support and excitement for the Ohio kid who became the Buckeyes’ first WNBA draft pick since Kelsey Mitchell and Stepahnie Mavunga each went to the Fever in 2018.

Mikesell wasn’t the only player McGuff was supporting that night. It took only three picks for another McGuff-recruited player to hear their name: UConn forward Dorka Juhász. Mikesell and Juhász are perfect representations of the NCAA transfer portal.

On one side of the conversation is Juhász. Coming to the United States from Hungary, McGuff recruited the big who played three seasons in Columbus, leading the team in rebounding and sitting second in scoring when her third season was said and done in 20-21.

McGuff and Juhász alike featured a barrage of questions in Seattle, Washington before the Buckeyes and Huskies battled in the Sweet Sixteen. The Buckeyes coach and UConn graduate senior had brief moments to chat in the weekend. As much as fans of universities go after players who enter into the portal, thinking of it as a perceived slight against the school and its supporters, its a different story behind the scenes.

“She (Juhász) was here three years, she graduated, she did a good job for us. She moved on to a program in Connecticut. It wasn’t very contentious at all,” said McGuff. “I saw her in New York and she gave me a big hug and I was happy for her.”

2023 WNBA Draft
Dorka Juhász drafted in the 2023 WNBA Draft
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

On the other side is Mikesell. Unlike Juhász, McGuff recruited Mikesell but couldn’t land the star shooting guard from Jackson High School. Instead, after two seasons with the Maryland Terrapins, and one with the Oregon Ducks, McGuff landed the guard he’d hope to get in 2018.

The results of Mikesell’s arrival in Columbus for the 21-22 season are clear. In two seasons, the Buckeyes won a regular season conference championship in 2022 and made it to the Elite Eight of the 2023 NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years.

In that stretch, Mikesell started all 68 games for Ohio State, leading the team with 17.9 points per game across the two seasons. When teammates went down with injury, Mikesell continued the form that made her such a prized recruit five years prior.

“Taylor Mikesell is a great example of, man, she came in and she impacted us in such a positive way,” said McGuff. “And I think we provided a great environment for her to grow and get drafted.”

Even with the transfer portal, and the success of stories like Mikesell and Juhász, McGuff sees the portal as situational. In today’s game, high school recruiting doesn’t go out the window.

The portal’s garnered a lot of attention since it rolled out in 2018, but this season especially put more eyes on its effectiveness with the LSU Tigers. Head coach Kim Mulkey’s side added nine players from the transfer portal on their way to an NCAA Championship, led by the biggest transfer of them all in forward Angel Reese who moved from Maryland to Louisiana.

McGuff credits coach Mulkey for the expert transfer portal work, but also knows that selecting nine athletes was a means to fill holes in her second season leading the Tigers. The focus for the Buckeyes, even with the addition of more talent from the portal, is clear.

“The core of our recruiting will always be high school kids,” said McGuff. “I enjoy the development part of it, to get kids in and have a plan for them to reach their potential and grow and develop in our program.”

McGuff on Ohio State’s Post-Sanctions Growth

The Scarlet & Gray’s proven their acumen with recruiting names like Kelsey Mitchell, Jacy Sheldon and Cotie McMahon but it was recruiting that also led to problems within the Buckeyes program.

In August 2019, former associate coach Patrick Klein resigned from the Buckeyes program. Within his resignation were confessions of breaking recruiting rules by offering to pay for non-scholarship player’s books, loaning money for rental cars and more. That led to vacated victories, a playoff ban and the basketball program on probation with the NCAA.

After the playoff ban ended at the end of the 20-21 season, the Buckeyes won their 21-22 regular season Big Ten title, made it to the Sweet Sixteen, 2023 Big Ten Tournament title game and Elite Eight. That’s good for the best two-year stretch of non-vacated games.

Coach McGuff doesn’t credit himself for changes within the program that turned the ship around. It goes back to the players.

“It’s because the character of the kids we have in the program right now,” said McGuff.

For much of McGuff’s time with the Buckeyes, the focus has been on getting the most talented recruits and build the strongest teams. Ohio State’s still building strong teams but now instead of going constantly for the top tier, its about finding the players that fit the program the best and putting together a group of coaches and support staff who are all on the same page.

“I know I’m really confident and comfortable in how we’re doing things and I think that’s helped attract the right kids,” said McGuff. “And maybe we haven’t gotten certain kids who don’t feel comfortable here, but I also think we’ve got great alignment with the staff.”

That’s what the Scarlet & Gray have right now, building a team of coaches who each help raise the level of the Buckeyes on and off the court.

McGuff on Buckeyes’ Coaching Staff

In the five years before McGuff became head coach of the Washington Huskies, he was taking the Xavier Musketeers deep in the NCAA Tournament. Part of his staff in Cincinnati, Ohio was former Tulsa star Carla Morrow. Following a stint as Director of Basketball Operations, McGuff hired Morrow to the Xavier staff as an assistant coach.

Following three years in the WNBA, as an assistant coach with the Chicago Sky, Morrow returned to coach McGuff’s staff, this time with the Buckeyes.

“It’s one thing for assistant coaches to say ‘I have a great relationship with a player,’” said McGuff. “I always look at it like “can you influence their behavior or can you steer them in the right direction of where we want them to go?’ She does that and I think its really important.”

On top of the trust of building relationships, Morrow is the mind behind game plans for Ohio State. McGuff credits her vast knowledge of the Xs and Os of the game, often getting game plans close to complete before even getting together with McGuff.

That’s only one example. Coach Wes Brooks, who’s an important piece of the Buckeyes’ recruiting, is on the road more than most coaches but also with the team game-in and game-out. “The kids like him, he’s easy to like.”

Jalen Powell, Wes Brooks and Carla Morrow on the sideline alongside coach McGuff and the Buckeyes
Ben Cole - Land-Grant Holy Land

Also, former Arkansas and Florida A&M assistant, now Buckeye assistant coach, Jalen Powell. Someone who’s like a big sister to the team but also brings a strong basketball mind.

Former managers for McGuff, Ryan Murray and Reid Guzdanski, handle pieces of scouting and recruiting and Director of Operations Beth Howe makes sure everything within the team is taken care of. That includes travel and everything that goes along with playing in a Power Five conference.

Lining all the shining recommendations from McGuff are his coach’s ability to build relationships with players. Help players learn the game and grow in all facets of basketball and life. With results like Ohio State’s 73-61 win over the UConn Huskies and 24-point comeback against the Indiana Hoosiers in the Big Ten Tournament, some coaches won’t be assistants for long.

“If you’re doing it right and you’re hiring good people, then they’re going to be looked at for head coaching jobs and I look at that certainly as part of my role,” said McGuff. “I think Wes and Carla will both be looked at this year, next year, in the coming years for head coaching jobs and they’re worthy of it.”

McGuff on the Buckeyes’ NIL Work

The work of the coaching staff, and mission of developing players, also reaches into name, image and likeness, another thing McGuff and the world of NCAA basketball wasn’t working with in 2013.

For the Scarlet & Gray, different players have different levels of participation and success within the NIL space. Individually, players like forward Cotie McMahon are building far-reaching relationships with companies to financially benefit off the hard work they put on the court and in the classroom.

When it comes to the team as a whole, the Buckeyes went a different direction than other teams with their NIL relationship, opting to work with the LandOn A Cure.

Ohio State works with the non-profit that works on funding research and treatment for rare genetic diseases. Named after Landon, a boy with a genetic disorder called TBCD, has had his story in the news, in the sea of signs at ESPN’s College Gameday and across the internet but this basketball season they teamed up with the Ohio State women’s basketball team.

“There’s a lot of pressure at Ohio State to win and win big and that’s why I came here to try to do that and have a program that can compete at a high level,” said McGuff. “But if that’s the only thing we did I think we’d be short changing what we’re capable of accomplishing and I love that our kids embraced the idea of having an impact in the community.”

Landon was honored at halftime this season on Jan. 8, in a second half 17-point comeback by the Buckeyes against the Illinois Fighting Illini. Also, he’s made multiple appearances at Buckeyes practices throughout the season.

“It’s so funny because people are like ‘oh, you’re making an impact.” I don’t know, I think we get more out of it than anybody. Our kids absolutely love it when we have a chance to do things with LandOn A Cure and we love Landon. They get so much joy out of it, it’s really awesome. I want them to understand the power of our program and how we can impact the community. I think its a big part of helping them grow as young women and us maximizing what this program can be really about.”

McGuff on the Future of Ohio State Basketball

All season, Big Ten women’s basketball, and the sport as a whole, saw popularity skyrocket. Teams across the conference saw unprecedented success. In Columbus, Ohio State saw an attendance increase of 2,674 fans per game, the largest increase in all of NCAA women’s basketball.

In the Sweet Sixteen, Ohio State vs. UConn was the most viewed Sweet Sixteen game in tournament history with over 2.4 million people watching the historic Buckeyes win in Seattle.

Each are off court reasons to brag about the state of the program, but what’s happening on the court is matching the added attention. Ohio State’s 19-0 start to the season was the best start for the Scarlet & Gray in team history. For McGuff and the Buckeyes, it’s only the beginning.

“I don’t look too far into the future but I really like where we are and we have some great stuff coming,” said McGuff.

In the Sweet Sixteen, at the NCAA Seattle Regional, coach McGuff joked about trying to match UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s 29-straight Sweet Sixteen, saying “that’s going to be the next coach at Ohio State’s job.”

It wasn’t a sly way of saying McGuff is on his way out of the Scarlet & Gray’s program. Coach McGuff doesn’t get nostalgic for the past and doesn’t look too far ahead. A basketball coach, especially in a highly competitive Big Ten conference, doesn’t have a lot of time for retrospection.

All of that time is spent either finding the next players in high school or the portal, getting that next future head coach in his group of assistant coaches or in-season making sure that the Scarlet & Gray are prepared for the next game on the schedule.

However, in those 10 years, McGuff’s kids are reminders. His oldest daughter, Kilyn, just finished her sophomore season at Belmont University. His second oldest daughter, Keiryn, is about to finish high school at Dublin Coffman High School before heading to Bowling Green to continue her basketball journey. On April 3, the McGuff family celebrated Leks’ 10th birthday.

“It’s really gone very quickly. It’s been a great high: Some extreme highs, some lows, but its been a great ride,” said McGuff. “But seeing my family grow has been the biggest measuring stick.”