Sunday afternoon is cause night for Ohio State women’s basketball. Off the court, various causes that the Buckeyes support will be honored. Groups including LandOn A Cure, Ability Matters, Special Olympics, and Autism Awareness. On the court, the scarlet and gray will try to improve their own cause of improving in conference play, with 14 games remaining on the schedule.
The game features a bigger test than the Buckeyes have seen in the last two games. The Michigan State Spartans overcame a coaching change and updates to the roster in the offseason to perform better than a side from East Lansing’s played in years. How do the Spartans test head coach Kevin McGuff’s side?
In the offseason, 16-year Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant stepped down from her spot leading the Spartans program. Along with that decision, the Big Ten side lost its two best scorers in guard Kamaria McDaniel (graduation) and Matilda Ekh (transfer) and leading rebounder in now-Buckeye transfer forward Taiyier Parks.
All that and new program leadership didn't bring in a large batch of Power Five conference transfers to fill holes. All-in-all, a situation like this leads to an expected period of transition.
Don’t tell that to Michigan State head coach Robyn Fralick.
The Spartans come to Columbus with a 12-3 record, and a real chance to come away with a win against the Buckeyes. So, how has coach Fralick done it? Scoring more points than their opponents.
Michigan State is a team that is not afraid to shoot the basketball. So far this season, the Spartans are at or near the top of the conference in most shooting categories, especially from beyond the arc.
From three-point range, Michigan State averages 10.1 makes per game, and when you combine that with the conference’s best team three-point average at 37.5%, you get a formidable offense. Overall, the offense is up for the Spartans, sitting behind only guard Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes in team scoring offense. Leading the way are a trio of returning Spartans.
Leading Michigan State is graduate senior Moira Joiner. After a freshman season under coach Merchant where Joiner started 25 of 30 games, the guard lost a starting spot due to injury and in-team competition. That led to 19 starts in 65 appearances over the past three seasons. Under coach Fralick, Joiner is thriving.
The guard from Saginaw, Michigan averages 16.2 points per game and enters Sunday following a 20-point performance in a win over the Maryland Terrapins. Joiner hit four three-point shots in that game on seven attempts, putting her 2.8 makes per game in the top five of the conference.
Junior guard DeeDee Hagemann, like Joiner, is playing career-best basketball under coach Fralick. Shooting 46% from three-point range, Hagemann’s increased her scoring by four points per game, and the free shooting opportunities with the Spartans make her another player for the Buckeyes to give extra attention.
However, the most interesting roster jump comes from forward Julia Ayrault. As a junior, Ayrault mustered just over 10 minutes per game for coach Merchant, averaging 3.6 points and 2.5 rebounds. As a starter under Fralick, Ayrault is a force inside the perimeter. Coming off a 20-point, 10-rebound, double-double against the Terrapins, Ayrault averages 14.9 points and a team-leading 7.5 rebounds per game.
While these three are the leading examples, a change to a more offensive-minded strategy is making many former deep bench players vie for the most improved on the roster.
This means the half-court defense of Ohio State is going to be busy on Sunday. If there’s a scent of an open shot for the Spartans, it’s likely going up. To combat it, the Buckeyes need to play the intensity that allows them to run to the right places to stop passing lanes and put hands in shooter’s faces.
Fortunately for the scarlet and gray, stopping the long shot is a strength this season. Through defensive play led by guards Celeste Taylor and Jacy Sheldon, the Buckeyes are tied with the Indiana Hoosiers in three-point shots allowed with 74 over 15 games. The likely matchup of Taylor and Joiner is an especially intriguing game within the game.
Taylor leads Buckeyes regulars in defensive rating, allowing 78.7 points in every 100 possessions. The guard’s doing it through a blistering pace of play that never lets up until Taylor gets to the bench. That means sucking up space that great shooters use to get shots up in small open windows.
Should Michigan State use screens to its advantage, a normal starting five for the Buckeyes can mostly neutralize it, and do even more with the agility and speed of substitute forward Eboni Walker. When Walker is on, Ohio State is smaller but they’re more nimble and flexible. It’s a group that could get a lot of work against a Michigan team that’s smaller itself.
Sunday has the makings of another round of strong offense versus strong defense. Ohio State hopes the old adage of “defense wins championships” holds true.
G- Jacy Sheldon
G- Celeste Taylor
G- Taylor Thierry
F- Cotie McMahon
F- Rebeka Mikulášiková
- Guard Celeste Taylor led Buckeyes starters in scoring for the third game in a row, against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Thursday.
- Guard Jacy Sheldon had a season-high eight steals against Rutgers Thursday. It also tied the guard’s second-career-best steals performance against the Tennessee Volunteers to start the 22-23 season.
- Thursday’s 42.3% shooting from beyond the arc was the fourth-best for Ohio State this season. In games where the Buckeyes shoot at least 40% from three-point range, they’re undefeated.
G- DeeDee Hagemann
G- Moira Joiner
G- Abbey Kimball
G- Julia Ayrault
F- Jocelyn Tate
- Forward Jocelyn Tate is the lone Bowling Green Falcon to transfer to Michigan State with coach Fralick. Tate’s started every game for the Spartans, averaging 7.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
- 58.6% of minutes played this season for the Spartans come from last season’s roster.
- Michigan State leads the conference in turnovers per game, only giving the ball away 11.3 times per game.
Although the Spartans enter Sunday with a good deal of momentum, losing to the Hawkeyes thanks to a last-second shot by Clark and beating the Terrapins, Ohio State will come away with the victory.
The Buckeyes’ defense will push the Spartans past their Big Ten-leading turnover numbers, and make shooting difficult for Michigan State. There will be spells where the energy isn’t there for Ohio State and the visitors get off shots, but the runs won’t be enough to win.
For all of Michigan State’s improvements on offense, defensively they’ll give Ohio State enough room to score. Forward Cotie McMahon will lead the Buckeyes and continue her return to form.
How to Watch
Date: Sunday, January 14, 2024
Time: 4 p.m. ET
Where: Schottenstein Center, Columbus, Ohio
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App
LGHL Prediction: 81-76 Ohio State Buckeyes
Sunday’s battle on court is intriguing, but off the court there’s even more. The Buckeyes feature connections to the current iteration of the Spartans, and not simply from playing some of its players in the past.
The first and biggest is through forward Taiyier Parks. Following four seasons in East Lansing, the Ohioan returned to the Buckeye state to play for the scarlet and gray. Following Thursday’s game against Rutgers, Parks shared that she’s excited to see teammates who she played alongside at Michigan State, reflecting on a positive experience as a Spartan.
A lesser known connection between Sunday’s teams are the coaches. Coach McGuff knows coach Fralick well.
In the offseason, when Michigan State announced Fralick as the replacement for Merchant, it was a few short weeks following the commitment of McGuff’s second oldest daughter Keiryn McGuff. Despite the change of coaches, McGuff held her commitment to the Falcons and is in the middle of her freshman season in Bowling Green, Ohio.
“She did an excellent job, both at Ashland and Bowling Green. And I know her and her staff really well,” said McGuff of Fralick. “She created incredible culture at Bowling Green. And I think, you know, Michigan State has a lot of talent, and she’s really got them playing well together and playing extremely hard. And, you know, the results are reflective of that.”