Last season, the Ohio State women’s basketball team felt little pressure.
Coming off a 17-18 season in 2013-14, the team was young, inexperienced and forced to deal with major injuries to key players. OSU responded admirably, sneaking up on teams and finishing 24-11 and advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
That element of surprise will not exist this season.
The Buckeyes return all five starters, including sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell, who was named preseason Big Ten Player of the Year by coaches in the conference. OSU was voted second by the coaches in the preseason conference rankings, behind defending-champion Maryland.
“I do feel like we have the best team we’ve had since we’ve been here, the best chance to do special things in terms of how we want to compete in the conference and postseason play and all that type of stuff,” coach Kevin McGuff said. “There’s a lot that goes into that. You’ve got to be playing your best basketball at the end. You’ve got to catch a break and stay healthy. But I do think we have a chance to have a terrific season.”
McGuff is not the only person anticipating major success.
Mitchell, the reigning co-Big Ten Player of the Year, dreams of how successful the team can be.
“I think about that night in and night out, just wondering what successes can we have this year. I think we can be a great team. I know every team has its flaws, but I honestly think we can do something special this year,” Mitchell said.
Despite her propensity to lead by example rather than vocally, Mitchell exudes confidence rarely found in a sophomore. Her teammates listen to her advice and respect her not just for her skills on the hardwood, but for her leadership as well.
Senior guard Cait Craft singled out Mitchell’s work ethic and maturity as the reasons for her success.
“She’s very mature for her age, and I think that’s a huge attribute for her because as a young player, she came in here and has all this admiration and adoration that she 100 percent deserves. But she never let it get to her,” Craft said. “She’s one of the first people you’ll see in the gym, she’s one the the last people to leave. On off-days, she lives here. Sometimes I don’t think she goes home. It seems like she’s just here all the time. She deserves everything she gets.”
Mitchell’s play in 2014-15 as a freshman is a large reason why OSU surprised people. She led the team in points per game (24.9) and assists per game (4.2), while shooting 41.5 percent from the field.
Even with the quick ascension to collegiate prominence, she remains humble, dedicated to improving herself — yet obsessed with helping to put her teammates in positions to flourish.
“I think all my teammates do something amazing. Outside looking in a lot of people say ‘she doesn’t do this or she doesn’t do that.’ I think every person on my team does something that no one else can do,” Mitchell said.
She continually works to understand each of her teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, putting them in the best position to take advantage of what they do well and cover up the blemishes.
The lack of seniority that led to the expectations of OSU being mediocre last season gives Mitchell and her teammates an advantage in team chemistry this season, as they’ve spent more time on the court together than anticipated.
The Buckeyes will quickly learn whether the talent, experience and depth the heightened expectations are based on are worthy.
OSU is scheduled to open its season on the road on Nov. 13 against South Carolina, which finished 34-3 in 2014-15. Just three days later, the Scarlet and Gray are set to welcome the defending national champion Connecticut Huskies to Columbus.
While the competition early in the year is stiff, McGuff said the Buckeyes will use the games to better understand where they stand amongst the best teams in the country.
“We’re going to take those games early on, win, lose or draw, and we’re going to learn those lessons and really figure out where we have to get better,” he said.
For Craft, the games are going to provide insight as to what OSU needs to work on, while shedding light as to where the Buckeyes stand as a squad.
“I would rather play those teams early, find out who we are, find out what we have to work on, where we want to be,” she said. “That’s really going to show us where we’re at.”