The process might have taken longer than they hoped, but Ohio State administrators finally got their man to lead the women’s basketball team.
Kevin McGuff was introduced Wednesday in a press conference at Value City Arena and represented himself well in front of the OSU press during his first appearance as head coach of the Buckeyes.
A native Ohioan who built Xavier into a 30-win team and mid-major power before two solid years at Washington, he brings a lot to the table as the new leader of the Scarlet and Gray.
He promised to field a defense-minded team that will hit the boards while playing an aggressive, attacking style on offense. The latter is probably what will appeal most to Ohio State fans, who used to grouse about the post-oriented, sometimes plodding style of predecessor Jim Foster.
Foster, of course, tried to change with the times by recruiting flashy point guard Samantha Prahalis from the New York City area five years ago and giving her some athletic wings to fill the lane, but by then it might have been too late from a perception standpoint. Stung by disappointing postseasons in 2006, ‘’07 and ’08, the Ohio State fans were skeptical Foster would really give a guard the keys to the attack and let her go.
He did just that, however, and the early returns were promising as the precocious East Coast native helped carry the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 as a freshman in 2009, a tournament run that came to an end at the hands of a powerful Stanford team that was not only awarded a No. 1 seed in the tournament but ranked No. 2 at the end of the season. The Buckeyes hung tough for about 35 minutes in that game before succumbing, but the future looked bright, especially when they signed five-star prospect Tayler Hill less than three weeks later.
Hill was supposed to put the Buckeyes over the top, giving them a third elite player to go with Prahalis and All-American post player Jantel Lavender. It didn’t work out that way, though. Ohio State earned a No. 2 seed in the 2010 tournament but bowed out to No. 7 Mississippi State in the second round, another disappointing showing that had fans howling for Foster’s head despite an existing six-year string of Big Ten titles.
In many ways, that was the beginning of the end for Foster’s program in Ohio State. The big three came back for one more season together, but the 2011 team suffered through a rough patch in the middle of the season brought on by chemistry problems and a young, unreliable bench. They did not recover in time to preserve their Big Ten title streak, but they got rolling at the end of the season, crushing three consecutive opponents to take the Big Ten tournament title and earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
That squad earned Foster’s third Sweet 16 at Ohio State, but a trip to the Elite Eight was denied by No. 1-seeded Tennessee. A look at the Lady Vols’ roster was an easy enough indication of what difference still existed between the Buckeyes and the best of the best – Ohio State had four McDonald’s All-Americans while Tennessee countered with nine.
The trio of stars didn’t draw great crowds to OSU home games, either, as attendance began a three-year decline that continued to this past season.
Hill, whose brother being a Buckeye probably helped her conclude Columbus was the place for her college years, was the seventh and final McDonald’s All-American to sign with Ohio State during the Foster regime. She just finished her career as a four-year starter and was drafted fourth overall in the WNBA draft after leading the Big Ten in scoring the past two seasons.
Foster pulled in highly rated Ohioans Kalpana Beach, Raven Ferguson and Ameryst Alston in the past two classes but lost McDonald’s All-Americans Ally Mallott and Malina Howard, among others. He signed no one in the early period of this recruiting cycle, though the Buckeyes were in the running for a handful of highly regarded national prospects as the state of Ohio’s crop was unusually thin.
McGuff takes over a team that went 18-13 last season and lost Hill to graduation as well as fellow starting guard Amber Stokes. Beach missed the past season with a torn ACL and could be out another year after she suffered the same injury again this week.
Ferguson and Alston give him two nice building blocks who can score, but he will have his work cut out for him getting this team back to the NCAA tournament in a transition year. Those two have All-Big Ten talent, but they will need some help from a group of post players that has played inconsistently to this point in their careers.
McGuff has a chance to hit the ground running, though, with a very deep and talented class of juniors available in Ohio. The headliner is Cincinnati Princeton’s Kelsey Mitchell, a guard who preps in McGuff’s old stomping grounds from his days as head coach at Xavier. Also highly coveted are athletic forwards Makayla Waterman (whose grandfather was an OSU men’s basketball assistant under Fred Taylor) and Kathryn Westbeld of defending Division I state champion Kettering Fairmont along with forward Alyssa Rice of Reynoldsburg.
He did not rule out adding someone in the spring signing period, but that is probably unlikely. That would mean he has seven scholarships to give out for 2014 if he so desires, though he may bank some for 2015 and ’16 classes that are already receiving rave reviews from recruiting analysts in and around the state.
Despite some trials and tribulations since letting Foster go, Ohio State appears to have found a great fit to lead its program. A proven winner at the mid-major level, McGuff had Washington going in the right direction with a pair of WNIT appearances and two McDonald’s All-America signings. That was without the luxury of recruiting in his home state, where he spent a lifetime building relationships not only in Ohio but also Indiana during his tim as a Notre Dame assistant.
For all the postseason frustration, Foster left the program in better shape than he found it. He ended an 11-year Big Ten title drought by winning six in a row, an unprecedented run that left no doubt Ohio State is the pre-eminent program in the conference, at least as far as the regular season is concerned. The Buckeyes’ 14 Big Ten championships are five more than anyone else.
Postseason success has not only eluded Ohio State but been relatively scarce for the rest of the conference as well. Purdue has the only national championship for the conference, and the Boilermakers are the only Big Ten team to make multiple Final Fours. They have two while Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Iowa all have one apiece.
Can McGuff make a difference in college basketball’s most important month? Only time will tell, but he had all the right answers on his first day on the job.