The start of the 2013-2014 season represents the dawn of a new era for Ohio State women’s basketball as Kevin McGuff begins his tenure as the head coach of the Buckeyes. After returning OSU to their proper place at the top of the Big Ten, Jim Foster was let go at the end of last season after three years of slipping performance. After two seasons as the head coach of Washington, McGuff returns to Ohio, he had been the head coach at Xavier for six years before taking the job with the Huskies, with the charge to get OSU to take the next step and compete for National Championships.
McGuff has promised an up-tempo, exciting style of play and his first couple months on the job have certainly shown that he understands up-tempo and exciting. He quickly assembled a coaching staff with a diverse variety of backgrounds: Joy Cheek (previously assistant coach at national power Duke), Patrick Klein (assistant coach at OSU under Foster), and Mark Mitchell (a state championship winning high school boys coach from Taft High School in Cincinnati). With no incoming class signed by Foster, McGuff knew that he had to hit the recruiting trail hard and he quickly made a splash, signing five high profile players (Kelsey Mitchell, Chelsea Mitchell, Alexa Hart, Makayla Waterman, and Asia Doss) who will don the scarlet and gray next season as part of perhaps the best recruiting class ever at OSU.
Adjusting to a new coach is always tough and this season the Buckeyes face the additional challenge of having to replace two of their top players and team leaders from last season as Tayler Hill and Amber Stokes graduated. Hill led the team in scoring (representing almost one third of OSU’s points), assists, and steals while Stokes was second on the team in steals and was third in points. Replacing both Hill and Stokes will be a tall task but OSU returns a lot of talent who have all played together before and who should now be much more comfortable with each other’s styles.
When any new coach takes over a team, the question of playing time and the role of players is always one of the first to come up. Some coaches will start with the status quo and adjust from there while others will start from scratch in terms of evaluating their players and figuring out how they can be best used. McGuff seems to have done the latter, at least that is what is suggested by his lack of discussion of the roles players would fill this season or even what starting lineup he would use. Thus, Sunday’s exhibition game against Bellarmine was far more interesting than the standard exhibition game against some patsy as it offered us the first clue as to what McGuff had planned with this team.
The outcome against Bellarmine was pretty much what we expected as Ohio State cruised to an easy 101-48 victory. All 11 healthy Buckeyes saw playing time, forward Kalpana Beach is recovering from an ACL injury, and 9 of them saw double digit time; McGuff clearly wants to see how everyone performs in actual game situations. Lets take a look at how this year’s squad and see what the Bellarmine game suggests about how the team will look this season.
One thing the exhibition game made very clear was that McGuff’s up-tempo offense will rely heavily on the guards, as indicated by the fact that the starting lineup consisted of 4 guards and a forward.
With Tayler Hill gone, the job of running the Buckeye offense will fall to sophomore point guard Ameryst Alston. The former two-time Ohio Ms. Basketball got off to a solid start in her first season at OSU, twice earning Big Ten freshman of the week honors and being named to the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team. Alston was second on the team last season with 86 assists (only 2 behind Hill’s 88) and has shown that she can run the offense and distribute the ball; her 74 turnovers were rather high but that number should improve this season as she has more experience and is more familiar with her teammates. Alston only averaged 6.5 points per game but is a great shooter, hitting 49% of her field goals and 32% from three-point range, suggesting that her low points-per-game average was primarily due to her not looking to score as much. Without Hill, Alston will be called upon to score more and while she doesn’t have Hill’s touch from long range, she is very athletic and can attack the basket off the dribble.
Alston got the start at point guard against Bellarmine and played 35 minutes, the most of any Buckeye by ten minutes. Alston posted a team high 20 points on 8 of 15 shooting, showing that she is definitely looking to score more this year. She is still distributing the ball well, recording 4 assists without committing a single turnover. Defensively Alston had 2 steals and grabbed 7 rebounds.
Junior Maleeka Kynard from Toledo arrived at OSU with the plan of spending a season studying the play of Samantha Prahalis before taking over her role at the point guard position. The arrival and emergence of Ameryst Alston clearly altered that plan. After two seasons of coming off the bench and only playing sparingly, Kynard will likely play a much bigger role this season as she had the best three-point shooting percentage among returning players last season (33%) and has shown good potential on defense, coming up with 12 steals last season while not seeing much action. The exhibition game seems to have confirmed Kynard’s bigger role as she got the start at guard and played 24 minutes, scoring 14 points while going 4 of 7 from the field, 1 of 2 from three point range; She also led the team with 3 steals.
Sophomore Cait Craft also only saw limited action last season though she did start and play most of the triple overtime loss to Purdue. Craft didn’t put up much in the way of stats but she did show a willingness to pull-the-trigger on her shot and while she only hit 28% from the field, her willingness to shoot suggests that she could be a major offensive threat once she finds her touch. Anyone who followed Craft on Twitter last season had to realize that she has a great basketball IQ, making it likely that she will be one of the quickest to adjust to the new system that McGuff is implementing. Whether it is that quick adjustment or just another summer of experience under her belt, Craft looked the most improved on the court in the exhibition game. Craft got only the second start of her career at OSU and took advantage, scoring 15 points on 4 of 8 shooting, 1 of 2 from beyond-the-arc, in 25 minutes of action. She also grabbed 4 rebounds and came up with 2 steals. Craft also showed good ability to draw fouls and led the team with 8 free throw attempts, hitting 6 of them.
Junior Raven Ferguson may be the most versatile player for OSU as demonstrated last season, starting off the year at her list position of guard but eventually being moved to a forward spot down the stretch. At 5’11”, Ferguson has good size for a guard but she gives up a couple inches at the forward spot; fortunately she more than makes up for that with her athleticism and her ability to stretch the opposing defense thanks to her range. Ferguson had been a solid contributor at guard, mostly coming off the bench, but really blossomed when she began starting at forward, scoring 50 points in her last 6 games. Ferguson again filled that sort of hybrid role in the exhibition game as the fourth starting guard and scored 12 points and grabbed 8 boards in 22 minutes of action.
The other guards on the OSU roster, Junior Shelbi Honeycutt and redshirt junior Amy Scullion, both only saw limited action in their previous seasons at OSU and they will likely be coming off the bench this season for the Buckeyes, though McGuff’s more up-tempo pace will probably result in them seeing more minutes on the floor. At 6’0”, Scullion has great size for a guard but hasn’t really found her shot yet at OSU. It seems that McGuff will utilize her a lot though, mostly as a defensive guard playing a bit on the inside, as suggested by her seeing the floor for 26 minutes on Sunday and grabbing 6 rebounds. Honeycutt only saw eight minutes of playing time against Bellarmine but she made a strong case for more playing time by scoring 8 points while going a perfect 2 of 2 form the field, one each from inside and outside the arc.
After All-Americans Jessica Davenport and Jantel Lavender, to say that Ashley Adams had big shoes to fill when she took over the starting post spot would be a huge understatement and OSU fans haven’t necessarily been to kind to Adams when she has struggled to live up to her predecessors. While she hasn’t earned All-American honors, Adams put up a solid 9.9 points per game last season and she has a great shooting touch, hitting 54% of her shots last season and 55% for her career. Adams is one of the best passing centers to play the game and has recording 69 and 70 assists in her past two games; her passing ability makes it hard for opposing defenses to collapse down inside or to crash the boards for rebounds as Adams is very quick to get the ball to an open player on the perimeter. The frustrating thing with Adams is that despite her talent, she doesn’t move very well and at times appears a bit lazy; one has to wonder how much better her 7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game numbers could be if she got herself into better position instead of trying to use her size to recover from being out-of-position.
McGuff’s new up-tempo offense will be a challenge for Adams unless she improves her ability to move without the ball and that was shown against Bellarmine as she only was on the floor for 19 minutes. She made a hell of an impact in that time though, scoring 14 points, grabbing 7 rebounds, and coming up with 3 blocks. Adams may see the floor less this season but it seems like she will still be highly effective and perhaps playing less minutes will help her be able to play harder when she is on the court.
Senior forward Darryce Moore split time starting and coming off the bench last season. Moore has good touch around the basket and is a physical forward who isn’t afraid to bang down low with the other bigs, something that is very common in Big Ten ball. While more athletic and energetic than Adams, Moore also needs to work on making sure she is in better position, especially when trying to defend the dribble drive by opposing guards. Likely as a consequence of McGuff’s more up-tempo, guard oriented offense, Moore only saw 12 minutes of playing time in the exhibition but did snag 7 boards though she struggled with her shot, going only 2 of 7 from the field.
Despite being the same height as Moore, 6’2”, Senior Martina Ellerbe is a very different style of forward, being more athletic and less of a physical presence. Ellerbe has played only sparingly so far in her career with her best performance coming when she replaced an injured Ashley Adams in the starting post role for one game last season where she scored a career high 10 points. Ellerbe also played 12 minutes on Sunday and wasn’t much of a presence on the boards, only 1 rebound, but did score 7 points on 50% shooting from the field and 3 of 4 from the charity stripe.
Redshirt Senior Aleksandra Dobranic started 15 games last season but never played all that many minutes and didn’t light up the stat sheet. She has shown a consistently improving shot over her career, going from a 36% shooter her freshman season to a 55% shooter last season, with an increasing number of shots taken each season. Last season she also showed that she can shoot the three-pointer which makes her an intriguing matchup against larger Big Ten teams who are going to want to pack the paint to stop drives by the guards. Dobranic only saw the floor for six minutes in the exhibition so it remains to be seen what role she will play in the upcoming season.
The final post player for the Buckeyes is redshirt Freshman Lisa Blair who will be looking for her first action that counts as a Buckeye this season. At 6’6”, the former McDonalds All-American nominee has great size which will be important come Big Ten season. Blair used her size to her advantage in the exhibition, tallying 2 blocks in her 11 minutes of action.
The final player for the Buckeyes is redshirt Sophomore Kalpana Beach who missed last season after suffering a preseason knee injury. In her freshman season Beach showed that she is a very talented, athletic, and aggressive forward who is going to be a pain for opposing defenses to deal with. Unfortunately Beach reinjured her knee during the offseason and had to have surgery again, resulting in her at least missing the first of this season though she may be back in the new year.
Coach McGuff has a major challenge ahead of him this season. Ohio State lost two of its top players and leaders from last season’s team and has no incoming freshmen joining the team this season, the non-conference schedule is challenging, and the Big Ten seems to be on the upswing with Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan State, and Purdue all being on the upswing. Combine this with the standard issues of a team and new coach trying to adjust to each other and it is probably wise to temper our expectations. Still, there are some positives. The Buckeyes return a great deal of talent and the players are at least familiar with each other. A new coach means having to adjust your playing style but it also can bring new energy to a program and all reports out of practices seem to indicate that McGuff has brought a new energy and intensity to Columbus. When Jim Foster was hired in 2002, he took a team that had gone 14-15 the previous year and led them to a 22-10 record and a trip to the NCAA tournament. Coach McGuff inherits a team that went 18-13 last season and was in consideration for an NCAA bid.
It is hard to tell a lot from an exhibition win against a team like Bellarmine as the level of competition wasn’t where it will be for most of Ohio State’s season. Still, there are several positive signs that we can take away from this game. The guards seem to have done a very good job adapting to McGuff’s new offense with pretty much all of them stepping up and looking to score more. While nobody will be able to singlehandedly replace Tayler Hill’s scoring, a more balanced scoring attack will be better for the team as a whole. Ameryst Alston looks like she will be more than capable of running the offense and she showed signs of looking to score more while Cait Craft and Maleeka Kynard showed great improvement which suggests that they will be much more of a scoring threat this season. The forwards and centers seem like they still have some work to do to adjust to the new offense. The faster pace will probably lead to more rotation among the bigs with them playing fewer minutes; if Kalpana Beach can return in January it would big a big help in this area. Overall, it seems like the team is playing well together and the most impressive thing from the exhibition game for me was that the team only turned the ball over 8 times. Sure, Bellarmine isn’t the greatest defense but OSU is adjusting to having players step into new roles, in a new offense, that is at a tempo that often leads to committing more turnovers, so only committing 8 turnovers, even in an exhibition game, is a very positive sign.
With so many questions remaining about the team due to players having to step into new roles and having a new coach, it is hard to get a good read on how the team should do and what realistic expectations should be. Still, McGuff was brought in with the expectations that OSU would compete for and win National Championships and it is important that he get off to a strong start in order to keep his recruiting momentum going. All things considered, the goal for this season should be a postseason berth in either the NCAA or NIT tournament (with a deep run if it is the NIT) and an above .500 record in Big Ten play, both of which would be an improvement from last season.
Even though it is hard to predict how the team will do this season, I think it is safe to say that it will be an exciting season and I’m looking forward to seeing what the McGuff era has in store. The Buckeyes will start the season on the road at West Virginia at 5:30pm on Friday. OSU’s home opener will be Sunday at 2:00pm as they host Florida Atlantic.