Ohio State 2014 signee Makayla Waterman personally tied Springfield 11-11 Wednesday night in Greater Western Ohio Conference girls’ basketball action. Meanwhile, Waterman’s Kettering Fairmont teammates outscored the Wildcats 91-0 as the defending Ohio Division I state champions improved to 14-1 on the season (H/T).
As you might expect, the 102 points for the Firebirds is their season high, but they have rolled early in GWOC play with an average margin of victory of 43.2 points during a 5-0 start.
Their level of competition will ramp up considerably this weekend when they head to Berlin, Ohio, for the annual Classic in the Country, where they are scheduled to play Toledo Notre Dame and Solon. TND (despite what ESPN might think) is led by Tierra Floyd, one of the top junior prospects in Ohio.
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.
Pat Summitt’s team has four double-digit scorers, all of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school.
Junior forwards Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson go 6-2 and 6-3, respectively, and both made the All-SEC first team. Stricklen averages 12.6 points and 7.3 assists per game. She shoots 38.5 percent from three-point range and has 73 assists.
Johnson averages 12.1 points per and 9.5 rebounds per game. She has 47 steals and shoots 54.6 percent from the field.
The team’s leading scorer is 5-9 freshman Meighan Simmons, who averages 13.7 points per game and has a team-high 98 assists.
The only senior starter is 6-0 guard Angie Bjorkland, the team’s best shooter from long range. She is hitting 45.9 percent of her treys while averaging 11.0 points per game.
The fifth starter for a little more than half the season was 6-6 junior Kelley Cain, but 6-1 sophomore Taber Spani started both NCAA tournament games last weekend as Summitt opted for a smaller lineup (Both of them are also McDonald’s All-Americans, in case you wondered.)
The 33-2 Volunteers went undefeated in the SEC and won the conference tournament. They have not lost since a setback at Baylor on Dec. 14, and they finished the season ranked No. 2 in the RPI.
Summitt had a teleconference Wednesday morning that was not terribly enlightening, but here’s a summary anyway:
“Marquette gave us pretty much all that we wanted,” she said of the Vols’ second round game. “I thought they did a great job. Thank goodness we had halftime and that gave us a chance to regroup.”
She felt perhaps being at home her team might have felt some anxiety, which is not all bad, and she was pleased to get a win in front of a great home crowd.
Asked about facing Ohio State head coach Jim Foster, she said, “Obviously I think Coach Foster has done a great job with this team. It will be kind of like old home week from being at Vanderbilt and going to Ohio State. He’s got a really good solid team. Jantel Lavender obviously is the go-to inside. The guard play is pretty solid too. They do a great job of getting the ball inside.
“They’ll push when they can, but just from watching them I think they prefer more of a half-court because they execute so well in the half court. They’re very, very schooled in that and do a great job with ball movement.”
She said 6-1 junior forward Alicia Manning (another McDonald’s All-American) is an X-factor for UT off the bench.
“She’s the one who comes in and can play multiple positions. She’s got a toughness to her game and I really like what she brings to our team. She’s just got a lot of grit and a lot of focus and I think she’s a very strong vocal leader as well.”
Asked if she might consider using a taller lineup against Ohio State, who starts 6-4 Jantel Lavender and 6-5 Ashley Adams, she said maybe.
Regarding Lavender, Summitt said, “She likes the paint. It’s not like she’s going to step way out but she’s really good at running the floor and getting paint points. We’re going to have to match up early and avoid transition.
“She’s got a good skill set and she does take things simple but she’s also very aggressive.”
Then the local reporters harped on the “anxiety and expectations” thing for a while, but she kept saying she didn’t think it was a big deal, and she sounded pretty convincing.
Her players seem to have taken it upon themselves to put the focus where it needs to be, but they are deep enough they don’t have to rely on any certain person.
“I don’t mind shortening the bench this time of the year. The bench has been a plus, but we’ll wait and see.”
She acknowledged the SEC has been down this year.
“What goes around comes around, but unfortunately we haven’t been as strong in the SEC. Hopefully in the future that will change. I think it’s all about getting the players and getting them to play together. We’ve had our struggles with that but I think we’re in a pretty good place right now.”
Asked about tourney games being more physical, she laughed and said, “They let you play in the postseason. Watching some games, it was pretty brutal at times. I do feel like it’s more physical at this time of the season than the regular season, by far.”
Individuals must adjust to that on their own.
“At this point in time you’ve got to have that mental attitude and not worry about anything but getting your job done.”
Although I said in the first place Ohio State should beat Iowa for a second time this year because the Buckeyes have superior length, the way this one played out was another important example of how this team has grown over the year.
Their star, four-time Big Ten Player the Year Jantel Lavender, was battered in the post all game by a group of Hawkeyes who made up for their lack of bulk with swarms of hands (and forearms and elbows) but they persevered. (Props also to Ashley Adams. The Buckeyes’ freshman center had one of her most consistent performances at both ends of the floor, frustrating Iowa with her 6-5 frame on defense and finding her teammates over and over again with great passes.)
They even found a way to hold serve while both Lavender and point guard Samantha Prahalis were on the bench together – a rare occurrence – late in the first half, and they forged a tie with a couple of tough baskets right before halftime.
The passing was superb as the Buckeyes built a 12-point lead in the second half then rebounded from an 11-0 Iowa run that made it a one-point game.
That Hawkeye spurt was a product of both Iowa’s tenacity and some questionable officiating, but the Buckeyes should be commended for having the mental toughness to respond when everything was going against them. They have folded in some similar situations in the past, such as the NCAA tournament loss to Mississippi State last year.
Also of note is the fact Iowa’s three talented guards could not take the Buckeyes off the dribble, as they have been able to do in the past. The difference is mostly a matter of effort and determination as Prahalis, Tayler Hill and Brittany Johnson have simply put more effort into guarding people. The second part of the equation was better help defense. They had people stepping into driving lanes = nearly every time it looked like a Hawkeye was about to turn the corner and find a path to the basket. That would have stunned anyone who had not watch the Buckeyes since they gave up 89 points in a loss at Iowa City on Jan. 8, but it has been building for the past month and a half.
Johnson, who has been prone to disappearances even as she’s been one of the Big Ten’s best shooters the past three seasons, showed no fear in casting away when she was open in key moments late, and her teammates were unselfish in working hard to realize she would be open and find her.
I like Iowa a lot, but they can’t beat Ohio State when the Buckeyes play hard and tough at both ends. Their post players are too light, and their guards are too short.
Michigan State presents an entirely different challenge in the semifinals today. The Spartans are mentally tough, something they have to be because they are not fantastically talented. Head coach Suzy Merchant has a bunch of grinders with good but not great ability, and she gets a lot out of them.
The Buckeyes will need to be mentally strong again because Michigan State will try to push them around and very likely be allowed to. Playing through that will be key, but now we’ve seen Ohio State do it not only Friday night but also in a 54-53 win in East Lansing nine days ago.
MSU did not play all that well for most of its quarterfinal win against Northwestern last night. The Wildcats were just much, much worse in what was a horrifically officiated prelude to the OSU-Iowa affair.
Based on MSU’s style, I don’t think this will be an aesthetically pleasing game, but it should not be short on drama.
Mercurial MSU point guard Brittney Thomas figures to be a key. She can really make things happen, but she tends to be up and down. If she’s making shots and getting easy baskets for her teammates, look out, because I’m sure Big Ten Co-Player of the Year Kalisha Keane will be determined to have a big game after she did next to nothing in the Spartans’ two losses to Ohio State this season, and defensive player of the year LyKendra Johnson always brings her best against the Buckeyes at both ends of the floor.
Check it out on the Big Ten Network tonight after Penn State takes on surprising Illinois at 5.
Should be an interesting weekend in Indianapolis for the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament.
The league was wildly competitive this year, as evidenced in part by the four-way tie in the middle of the pack.
That included Ohio State and its first tournament opponent, Iowa, along with Michigan and Wisconsin.
The Buckeyes were fortunate through tiebreakers to earn an opening-round bye, but their path is not too enviable.
Iowa figures to be out for blood after having been knocked out of the tournament by Ohio State the past two seasons, and with a trio of talented guards, the Hawkeyes can really fill it up.
The teams split the season series with both winning at home. Ohio State lost a nationally televised game at Iowa City on Jan. 8 by an 89-76 tally. As the score indicates, the Buckeyes didn’t play much defense that afternoon, a problem that has haunted them for the better part of two seasons.
When Ohio State dominated the return engagement Jan. 24, there were signs the Buckeyes were turning things around. The 81-67 victory was their second win over a ranked team in just over a week, and they looked sharp at both ends.
They confirmed that day they had the athleticism to guard people if they were really interested in doing so, but when they lost the next three, they also reminded everyone they weren’t done growing up. At that time, there were real questions about whether or not they ever would.
Four-time Big Ten Player of the Year Jantel Lavender agreed during interviews this week that win over Iowa was something of a tease, a peak at what they were capable of doing even though they weren’t ready to do it every night, but she insisted we concentrate on the six-game winning streak on which the Buckeyes finished the season.
I think that’s fair. I think they really have turned a corner, but that doesn’t mean they are immune from a potential regression this weekend or next when the NCAA tournament starts.
They’ll get no artificial motivations from the first two opponents, who joined Ohio State to form the trio of teams everyone figured the league would be chasing before the season.
The Buckeyes have already proven they can beat Iowa, and they swept league champion Michigan State, so all the intangibles figure to be in the Spartans’ favor if they win their first game and meet the Buckeyes on Saturday in a semifinal game.
I guess that means the test for Ohio State is to continue to motivate itself for another week, to stay sharp until the tournament that actually means something begins with a potential pair of games in Columbus. (And perhaps every win this weekend increases the chance the Buckeyes end up in the Dayton Regional.)
I think this incarnation of Ohio State is a bad matchup for Iowa. If the Buckeyes are dialed in on defense, they can really bother the Hawkeyes’ talented shooters because Ohio State has superior length on the perimeter. And the addition of 6-5 shot blocker Ashley Adams to the Ohio State lineup lets the Buckeyes extend their defense without as much fear of getting taken off the dribble.
Being able to bring Amber Stokes off the bench for more defensive pressure could tip the scales further in Ohio State’s direction, too.
As for Michigan State, the Spartans are bound to be loaded for bear after losing to the Buckeyes twice in the regular season. I think Ohio State has more raw ability than the Spartans, but MSU is deeper and plays a hard-nosed game. Beating a conference’s regular season champion three times in one year seems like a tall task, and I tend to think it won’t happen.
If it does, we’ll know for sure this team has the top-10 talent everyone thought before the season, and we shouldn’t need any more evidence to prove the Buckeyes really have turned a corner in terms of focus, effort, toughness and tenacity.
If it doesn’t…. well there’s no time to panic. Michigan State won 25 regular season games for a reason. There is still time to regroup, and there is still reason to believe these Buckeyes could be dangerous in the NCAA tournament.
There’s never really been a doubt that when they are on, they can scare almost anyone. The questions were more about what they did when shots weren’t falling. Now we know they can still win, so the question becomes how consistent can they do it?
As for the other side of the bracket… should the Buckeyes make the tournament final on Sunday, I think Michigan will be the team waiting for them. The Wolverines have enjoyed quite a renaissance. They are a tough matchup for anyone because they have bigs who can play outside, and they know what they’re doing in coach Kevin Borseth’s system. I believe Penn State is more talented, but the Lady Lions look like they might be wilting as the season winds down.
Ohio State’s run of consecutive Big Ten regular season championships could come to an an official end on Thursday night, although that is something of a formality at this point.
With four games left, the Buckeyes, at 6-6 in the conference, are four games behind Michigan State and 3 1/2 games behind Penn State in the standings, so they will be out of contention with another loss or if either of the other teams wins one more game. (The Spartans play host to Northwestern on Thursday night)
Another OSU loss would assure they can finish no higher than third in the conference, and they need to finish strong to avoid being one of the six teams that has to play on day one of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
The Lady Lions are ranked 23rd in the AP poll, and they beat the Buckeyes 80-71 in State College in a game that featured many of the defensive breakdowns that have plagued Ohio State much of this season and last.
Looking ahead to this contest, head coach Jim Foster said defense is the focus for his team.
Penetration by point guard Alex Bentley created all kinds of problems, as did her fondness for pushing the ball in transition. As she goes, they go.
Asked how the defense was in Ohio State’s last game, an 83-76 win at Minnesota, he said “good when it needed to be.” He thinks the team has been playing better overall the past two games and has had more cohesion on defense.
The freshmen continue to take strides in practice, and that is crucial because they make up the main part of the bench.
Asked about freshman Ashley Adams, a center who moved into the starting lineup about a month ago, he said she is the type of player he expected: A good passer with great size who can block shots and finish around the rim.
She’s come a long way since having to miss the preseason with a knee injury. That caused her to miss a chance to learn a lot about how they do things and to work on some individual skills that don’t get much attention during the course of the regular season.
Meanwhile, senior forward Jantel Lavender has continue to evolve her game this year and seems to be figuring out what she needs to do to be successful. Her footwork has improved and she has started to take the ball to the basket more after she had fallen into a pattern of shooting too many jump shots.
Pace of play is important for her, too, as she tends to make mistakes when she gets in a rush.
This team is starting to understand the importance of focus, and that is a big deal because the conclusion of the year is the exact opposite of last season when they clinched their sixth straight Big Ten title with four games left and then started coasting. That turned out to be a bad thing.
Lavender said she hasn’t thought about the fact they could be mathematically eliminated this week but said it is disappointing they have stumbled so many times already. They can still win the Big Ten tournament and make a run in the NCAA (They are a 7 seed in the latest ESPN Bracketology).
She sees people understanding their roles better than they were earlier in the season (This was a stated area of importance before the season, but it has taken a lot of effort and growing pains to make progress)
They finished with four teams who could all be considered NCAA-caliber (Wisconsin and Purdue are both on the bubble), and they need to play super hard against them and can beat all four.
Senior guard Brittany Johnson said the team has been playing better the past week because it is meshing better and moving the ball more. She thought last year’s team did the little things better than this one has done them up to very recently.
Foster said Lavender has improved recently by slowing down when she gets it in the post and driving when she has the chance on the perimeter, and Johnson has done a better job with focus and defensive intensity. She has begun to realize if she keeps her head up, she can see and create things instead of just being a jump shooter.
Fellow starting guard Tayler Hill, a sophomore, continues to diversify her game and needs to work on finishing strong with either hand. He said she could be an All-America-type player if she learns to finish overhand with her right hand in traffic.
Point guard Samantha Prahalis has grown in her understanding of her role and value as a passer. She is also learning how to play without the ball, which is important because she’s the team’s second-best set shooter (behind Johnson). She’s learning how to get herself ready to receive a pass and score after giving it up initially.
Lavender said breaking in the new freshmen – Adams and forward Martina Ellerbe, in particular – took a while because the veteran starting lineup had to wait for them to get used to the pace of the college game.
As a result, she felt like she was forcing things and getting out of her comfort zone. People started playing too individually, trying to take things into their own hands to fix what was wrong instead of playing as a team.
Foster said this team has to take a tournament mentality now, and that is good particularly for this group because it hasn’t had much in-season adversity prior to this year. Now he hopes adversity leads to opportunity for the rest of this season.
Lavender agreed the team lost any sense of urgency last year after locking up the title and said the team did not play as hard as it should have. This year they don’t have that luxury because they are playing for seeding in the Big Ten tourney and to make sure they make the NCAA.