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Five Storylines: Ohio State women’s basketball vs. Iowa

The crowd, keeping composure and, yes, Caitlin Clark

Ohio State’s Taylor Thierry (2) defended by Iowa’s Kate Martin (20) during Big Ten women’s basketball championship game

The Ohio State women’s basketball team has a challenge ahead of itself. A challenge that the team has had in other moments this season, but each time coming up short. Now, instead of an outstanding USC Trojans guard Juju Watkins scoring 30 points easily, or 6-foot-7 UCLA Bruin center Lauren Betts stopping anything in her path, it’s Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark and all she brings both in and out of the game.

Here are five storylines to watch for in Sunday’s game, where No. 18 in the country hosts No. 2.


The Crowd

The attention surrounding the game itself can’t be understated. Ohio State opened the upper deck for this game alone, with Clark and the Hawkeyes averaging 9,874 people in attendance for away games. Take away three neutral site games at a midseason tropical tournament that normally don’t bring large attendance numbers, and its almost 13,000 per game.

Sunday will increase that number, with the Buckeyes announcing Friday that the game is a sellout of the roughly 19,000 seats available.

The crowd will fall into three broad categories: Ohio State fans, University of Iowa fans and the Clark curious crowd. What the split will be is unknown, but there will be a lot of black and yellow in the crowd normally comprised of scarlet and gray. However it breaks down, it’s an important moment for everyone included in the game.

“Just to be able to have a whole bunch of fans in the Schott, you know, I think that’s going to be really fun for us,” said Ohio State guard Celeste Taylor. “The energy, the crowd, whether that be against us or with us.”


Composure

When Iowa gets the ball, they want to run. That means when possession switches on poor passes, the defense has to work even harder than it will already have to with the opponent at hand.

The Buckeyes average 16 turnovers per game in losses, the most being 19 against the Michigan Wolverines on Dec. 30. Ohio State has improved since then, averaging 11.5 per game in the recent four-game winning streak. Against Iowa, it’ll have to be in that ballpark for the game to stay competitive. Ohio State has the experience to do that, with graduate senior guards Jacy Sheldon and Celeste Taylor on the perimeter running the show.

A record crowd for the season could either help or hurt Ohio State in this regard. Effective communication will limit turnovers and let the offense especially stay focused. The Buckeyes have that in mind for practices before Sunday.

“We may even turn up the music a little bit here in the next couple days, just to make them communicate out there without me being able to direct things.” said head coach Kevin McGuff. “Cuz it’s gonna be a little bit like that on Sunday.”

On the other side of turnovers, Ohio State leads the conference in turnover margin, in Big Ten play. That +6 margin in the Buckeyes’ favor, if it repeats Sunday, has to turn into points against an Iowa side averaging 90.9 points per game against conference opponents. For all that Clark will bring to the game, the start averages 4.2 turnovers per game, and almost six per game in the last five Big Ten games. Trying to frustrate the star isn’t an easy task, but Taylor has the ability to do just that.


Celeste Taylor’s Defensive Impact

While Iowa’s screens created for Clark’s deep threat won’t give the game too many permanent one-on-one situations, Taylor gives the Buckeyes something it didn’t have against the Hawkeyes in two defeats last season. At Duke, Taylor was a National Defensive Player of the Year finalist for 22-23, and the guard has brought that same work to the Buckeyes.

Taylor sits second in the conference this season in defensive rating, sitting at 79.2 points allowed for every 100 opponent possessions. The graduate senior does this by limiting space between herself and her opponent, always has a hand or arm up on shots and capitalizing on any opponent mistakes. In other words, Taylor annoys people and never lets up.

That’s the kind of performance the Buckeyes need and Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder will do her best to limit. That could mean more quick shots from deep for Clark, which make for fun highlight reels but are also a better alternative than letting her pass into the paint or make moves herself.

“It’ll be fascinating,” said Coach McGuff about the matchup. “I think there’s two competitive players who are both really good at what they do. So it’ll be fun to watch.”

The two former amateur teammates are friends, and do have some NCAA history against each other. During the 2021 ACC/B1G Challenge.

Stephen Malley | hawkeyesports.com

On Dec. 2, 2021, the Hawkeyes went to Cameron Indoor Stadium in North Carolina and fell to Taylor and the Blue Devils, in the guard’s junior season. Clark scored 22 points, had nine rebounds and eight assists. Now, that’s a great scoreline for most NCAA players, and Clark was only a sophomore in the 79-64 defeat, but a stat sheet for Clark similar to that 2021 game would do wonders for the Buckeyes on Sunday.

In any close games for the Hawkeyes this season, Clark has avoided hitting a double-double. Against the Spartans, where the star hit a game-winning three at the buzzer to win by three on Jan. 2, Clark had 40 points but only one rebound and five assists. With the Buckeyes improved half court defense this calendar year, limiting the non-Clarks of the world will go a long way.

Taylor isn’t alone either. In both defeats to the Hawkeyes last season, Iowa didn’t have to contend with Sheldon. In the first game, last January, Sheldon was out due to a foot injury that kept her out most of the season. The Big Ten Tournament defeat for Ohio State only had Sheldon playing 17 minutes off the bench.

The matchup between the two former teammates is a top billing within an already blockbuster event.


Forwards Momentum

While the Buckeyes fell twice to the Hawkeyes last season, there is recent history of Ohio State getting the best of Iowa. It happened two years ago in Iowa City, Iowa.

In a 92-88 victory on Jan. 31, 2022, the Buckeyes won with the three-point shot. While this might make minds go to the clear fact that shooting guard Taylor Mikesell is no longer playing NCAA basketball, the most dangerous shooter in the victory is still on the roster. It’s not Sheldon either but forward Rebeka Mikulášiková.

The Slovakian forward hit five of the scarlet and gray’s 11 three-point shots on the day. Fast forward two years and she’s in a run of form that is helping Ohio State win games. Against Maryland, Mikulášiková led the team with 20 points, going three-for-six from beyond the arc.

Mikulášiková also hurt the Terrapins in the paint, using her agility to spin around defenders and hit theatrical layups. Mikulášiková credited those inside points for her success from deep. Both inside and outside. Fortunately for the forward, it won’t be all on her shoulders in the paint.

Forwards Taylor Thierry and Cotie McMahon can have an impact against the Hawkeyes in the paint. Iowa has a strong inside game, mostly on offense when Clark is throwing passes into Hannah Stuelke or Sharon Goodman.

Focusing on the inside by all three forwards, plus the drives created by Sheldon, will open up those opportunities to shoot from deep, but it won’t be easy. Iowa will play a zone defense against the Buckeyes because lately the threes are not falling.

Ohio State will need to do better than its current stretch of deep shooting. In the Buckeyes’ last game against Maryland, coach McGuff’s side went 4-for-26 from deep. Starting early in the first quarter, right from the tipoff, the threes weren’t landing. Giving McMahon, Mikulášiková and Thierry early chances going into the zone, or receiving passes after breaking through it, will show how the referees decide to call the game and how Iowa handles the pressure.

Establish that and the shooting follows. As long as they hit.


Caitlin Clark

A large pair of blinders are needed to not see the importance of Clark to this game. She’s the reason the upper bowl is open, why tickets sold out immediately after going on sale (thanks to scalping) and why Iowa is the No. 2 team in the nation.

The classic argument is that there are five players on the court. No arguments here. Clark could not beat an Ohio State one-on-five. However, she certainly will try to win singlehandedly.

Clark averages 21.8 shots per game, the most in the Big Ten, seven shots more a game than the second most by Michigan guard Laila Phelia. Look in the Iowa roster and the second name is Stuelke, shooting 13 less shots per game. Clark has the most assists in conference history because the attention given to her finds teammates who convert high percentage shots.

So, the added work of double and triple-teaming Clark doesn’t work. Feeding into the Clark madness on the court won’t help the Buckeyes. Ohio State of last season couldn’t get past Clark. Iowa broke the 19-game Buckeyes winning streak to start the year and then cleaned the scarlet and gray up in the Big Ten Tournament final, one day after a 25-point comeback by coach McGuff’s side.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 Ohio State vs Iowa Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This time around, the team feels different.

“Defensively we’ve grown. I think we’ve improved in that area last year compared to this year,” said Thierry. “And I think offensively too. We’re moving the ball really well. And we have a lot of versatile players who can score and defend. So I think all around our game has improved as a team.”

How well has the team improved? Sunday is the litmus test.