The Ohio State women’s basketball team entered the 2022-23 season with confidence that it could be one of the best teams in the country this year, but the Buckeyes didn’t quite expect this.
Ohio State has never had a longer undefeated start to a season than it’s had this year by winning its first 18 games. The Buckeyes are now ranked second in the AP Top 25, behind only defending national champion South Carolina, matching the highest ranking the program has ever achieved.
It’s unprecedented territory for Kevin McGuff’s squad. But now that the Buckeyes have established themselves as one of the top teams in the nation, they feel like that’s exactly where they belong.
“Coming in, you always expect a lot. And I didn't expect this, to be honest,” Ohio State freshman forward Cotie McMahon said. “But now that like we are where we are and watching us progress each game and each day, we deserve this. I feel like we definitely deserve this and deserve more.”
McGuff, who is now in his 10th season as Ohio State’s coach but never previously started a season with more than seven straight wins, was optimistic entering the season because of how much veteran talent the Buckeyes were bringing back. Ohio State’s top three scorers from 2021-22 all returned – Jacy Sheldon, Taylor Mikesell and Rebeka Mikulasikova – while the Buckeyes also brought back Madison Greene, their third-leading scorer in 2020-21, after she missed the entire 2021-22 season with a torn ACL.
“We returned the core of our team from last year. So I thought we'd get off to a good start with just the talent and experience and leadership that we returned, and I think that's the key,” McGuff said. “We've got great leadership. Jacy Sheldon, Taylor Mikesell, Rikki Harris, they've done just a phenomenal job really leading this team.
“I didn't really come into it like, ‘Hey, what's our record going to be 18 games in,’ but I had high expectations and still have certainly high expectations for how we finish the year, because I really believed in our team, our talent level, our leadership and probably most importantly, just our chemistry and the competitive character of this group.”
Both McMahon and sophomore wing Taylor Thierry – the two players who met with reporters during the team’s media availability on Tuesday – pointed to the team’s chemistry when asked what they think has been the key to their success so far this season.
“I feel like we all have a ton of different personalities, but all those different personalities jell really well,” McMahon said. “So I feel like our chemistry that we have, there's not one weird vibe that we get. We all just jell very well together. I feel that definitely helps us on the court.”
Ohio State has had to face adversity. Greene suffered another season-ending knee injury in the Buckeyes’ 12th game of the season against South Florida. Sheldon, who led the Buckeyes with 19.7 points per game a year ago, has missed all but five games due to a foot injury.
But that hasn’t stopped the Buckeyes from winning every game they’ve played, and winning many of them convincingly, as 13 of their 18 victories have been by double digits. When the Buckeyes have had to battle back from deficits – such as in their most recent home game against Illinois, when they trailed by 17 points in the third quarter before coming back to win 87-81 – they’ve repeatedly finished strong to fend off defeat.
This aint what you want pic.twitter.com/2WptVvBvhS— Ohio State WBB (@OhioStateWBB) January 16, 2023
Resiliency has been a defining factor of the Buckeyes so far, and McGuff believes that stems from the team’s veteran presence. Ohio State’s roster includes eight players who are either seniors or redshirt juniors.
“I think the resiliency comes from our leadership, our upperclassmen and just the competitive character of our group,” McGuff said.
Mikesell leads the Buckeyes with 18.6 points per game (fourth-most in the Big Ten) while Mikulasikova has taken her game to new heights, averaging 14.4 points per game – five more per game than last season. McMahon and Thierry have also had breakout seasons, averaging 12.6 and 12.3 points respectively as first-year starters.
Amid the injuries to Sheldon and Greene, the Buckeyes have been buoyed by their depth. Harris and Hevynne Bristow have stepped up in their absence, combining for an average of 14.8 points over Ohio State’s last six games.
“Obviously, it hurts that we have teammates that get hurt and are out for the season or for however long it is, but it just shows how versatile each of us are,” Thierry said. “We're able to play multiple positions and adapt to different changes that happen on the team, and that kind of just shows how well we work with each other and we're able to fulfill different roles on the team. And that's what's helped us win, despite having injuries on the team.
“Honestly, this whole team can really play, and we have reliable people that come off the bench too and are able to put up good points and give us good minutes. And so I just think that's helped us a lot.”
“I had high expectations and still have certainly high expectations for how we finish the year, because I really believed in our team, our talent level, our leadership and probably most importantly, just our chemistry and the competitive character of this group.”– Kevin McGuff on Ohio State’s 2022-23 women’s basketball team
Ohio State has excelled on both ends of the floor. Offensively, the Buckeyes rank sixth among all Division I women’s basketball teams with 86.4 points scored per game. Defensively, the Buckeyes have forced 23.3 turnovers per game – the fifth-most in the country – in large part because of how frequently and effectively they’ve run the full-court press.
“The biggest thing I've seen probably is our defense,” McMahon said when asked what she thinks the team’s biggest strength is. “Just seeing from what we've worked on before the season to how it's really carried on into the games, I feel like that's helped us a ton. I feel like that’s what's really helping us out as far as having our record 18-0.”
The Buckeyes should get even better on both ends of the floor with Sheldon, who is expected to return to action soon. McGuff said the Buckeyes are being cautious to make sure she is fully healthy before getting back on the court.
“We're getting closer,” McGuff said. “We're just really making sure we give it ample time to fully heal so that we can have her at 100% down the stretch. But we're getting closer, for sure.”
|SOUTH FLORIDA||88-86 (OT)|
|Rankings via this week’s AP Top 25|
As good as Ohio State has been, it’s about to face what could be its two biggest tests of the season to date next week. While no team Ohio State has played this year is currently ranked higher than 14th in the AP poll (Michigan), the Buckeyes are set to face two top-10 opponents in a four-day span when they play 10th-ranked Iowa at home on Monday (7 p.m., ESPN2) and sixth-ranked Indiana on the road next Thursday (8:30 p.m., BTN).
First, though, the Buckeyes face a rematch with Northwestern at the Schottenstein Center this Thursday (6:30 p.m., BTN). While Ohio State is a clear favorite to win that game, as the Wildcats are 0-7 in Big Ten play and lost 81-48 in the previous matchup in Evanston in December, the Buckeyes have thrived all season on a one-game-at-a-time approach and don’t want to deviate from that now.
“The Big Ten is as good as any league in the country in women's basketball. So we know we got some really tough games ahead,” McGuff said. “But regardless of who it is, the next game on the schedule is the only game that matters, and all the practices in between are what will give us a chance to continue to be successful.”
Now that Ohio State has positioned itself as a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, it’s easy for the Buckeyes to start dreaming about their postseason possibilities now. But they know they need to stay focused on the task at hand to get to where they want to be in March.
“It's obviously great to be 18-0, but that's not our focus,” McMahon said. “Our focus is the next game and to win the next game and do what we do best. So that's really just the focus. The record, it will take care of itself.”
McGuff knows it’s easier said than done for his players not to get caught up in the praise that comes with such a successful start. But he’s reminding them on a daily basis that they can’t get complacent.
“It’s tricky, because you know how it is, you get ranked No. 2 and win 18 games, everybody’s telling you how good you are,” McGuff said. “So I try to really, really hammer home every single day that the goal for us right now is just to continue to get better and get prepared for the next game on the schedule. And that's where we really put our emphasis and focus.”