Since I cover the team on a regular basis, I’ve had a few people ask me the same thing for a few weeks:
What’s the deal with the Ohio State women’s basketball team, huh?
Well, how much time do you have?
The Buckeyes were ranked in the top five at the start of the season, owing to the return of two-time All-America center Jantel Lavender, All-Big Ten point guard Samantha Prahalis and three other starters from a 30-win team, but have skidded to a 13-9 record and are looking not only at the end of their six-year run as Big Ten champions but perhaps even missing the NCAA tournament.
Why is that?
The reasons for the struggles have been discussed much the past six weeks or so, but I would say they came through most clearly during interviews today.
Two problems are at the forefront: The stars have been inconsistent, and they have not gotten much support at all from the bench.
The absence of bench production is not entirely surprising. The three top reserves from last season all graduated, and no one has risen up to replace them. That has a lot to do with youth.
The only bench player with more than one year of college experience is Alison Jackson, a senior who has never made the transition from McDonald’s All-American to productive college player because I just don’t think her heart is in it. She’s athletic and has long arms, but she seems to wander at both ends of the floor.
Sophomore Amber Stokes has been solid in spurts but she’s a work in progress on offense, and freshmen Brianna Sanders and Martina Ellerbe are just too raw to be counted on for much production.
Freshman center Ashley Adams has been a revelation at times, but she also has been up and down.
That’s a much bigger problem than anyone might have imagined before the season because her presence is about the only thing that makes the offense function properly.
There’s not really any natural movement in the offense, so passing must be crisp and quick, and she has proven to be the missing link there. She can find the open person in the high post and finish down low. Defensively, though, she doesn’t have much foot speed so she can be taken advantage of by perimeter-oriented bigs in the league.
But the youth of the bench has been established before.
What was new Wednesday is head coach Jim Foster said some of his veteran stars are working through adversity, perhaps for the first time in their careers.
He said sometimes a coach knows a player needs to learn something but has trouble getting through to them why they need to work on their weaknesses until they start to get exploited or someone takes away their strength. A player might have a move that works 90 percent of the time and so rarely come across someone who can force them to do anything else that they ignore being told to work on it anyway.
Part of coaching is hiding weaknesses, but there is so much familiarity in the Big Ten that they know what to attack, and the rest of the conference has been waiting to pounce on them for a while.
Lavender is in a unique position because she has great natural strength and quickness, but she has let people too often turn her into a finesse player either by using size, numbers or just rough play against her.
She’s developed a reliable 15-foot jumper but is still well-known to prefer to score over her left shoulder so teams sit on that.
Prahalis has gotten knocked off her game by physical play at times, too, and she tends to get frustrated and press when things start to go south. Foster has tried to let her split time at the point with sophomore Tayler Hill (she is a McDonald’s All-American like Prahalis and Lavender), a move that has had some success, but Hill is not as good at setting up her teammates as Prahalis. Prahalis is a drive-and-dish player who can stop and shoot from the outside. Hill is a drive-and-score player who can take people off the dribble and finish with her strength.
So basically the scorer is trying to learn to set people up and the passer is learning to play on the wing, and there has been trial and error they haven’t been able to overcome.
Overall, the offense probably isn’t as good as it could be, but the bigger problem is on the other end of the floor.
Defense has been a struggle for quite a while, and there’s a simple reason for it: He has recruited offensive-minded players and found convincing them of the importance of playing defense for 35 seconds instead of 30, or on every possession in stead of every other, a difficult proposition.
Brittany Johnson, the other senior starter not mentioned yet, said that is coming along in practice but they haven’t transferred it over to games yet. We will see if that is the case. She has improved as a defensive player, but she had a long way to go. She’s a great shooter but hasn’t added much else to her game in the past couple of seasons. If she’s working on anything, it would be scoring off the dribble and maintaining defensive presence every possession.
Foster said the team’s confidence overall is fine, but it doesn’t look that way from the outside.
I think there is genuine concern amongst the players that they might not get out of this funk, and that has made them play tentative and kept them from making the types of plays they need to make when they are challenged.
How quickly the team matures will determine how good they can be when all is said and done.
I tend to think it’s getting awfully late for them to figure it out, but I guess that’s the nice thing about basketball: There are a lot of second chances.