Analysis: McGuff Brings Change To OSU Women

Kevin McGuff has injected some life into the Ohio State women's basketball program, but it must be kept in mind that he takes over a team with high expectations that is coming off one of the most successful coaching tenures in program history. We take a look at how the new head man is taking the team through its transition.

Buckeye Sports Bulletin endeavors to cover Ohio State sports as deeply as possible both in print and online, but not every story in the newspaper makes it to the website each week. With that in mind, we're posting some of our best newspaper stories from the past few weeks here on during OSU's open week. This story ran in the last issue of BSB. Buckeye Sports Bulletin print is free with a year's subscription to; sign up today!

Change is rarely easy, but in the case of the Ohio State women's basketball program, many would probably agree the time for it had come last spring.

Jim Foster's accomplishments should and will be remembered for a long time even though there were some (perhaps unreasonably impatient folks) who had begun diminishing them long before he was shown the door in March after 11 seasons on the sidelines for the Scarlet and Gray.

He said he was drawn to Columbus for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that he noticed Ohio State does not hang banners for just any athletics accomplishment.

Oh, sure, there is one for NCAA tournament appearances, but you won't see anything special for Sweet 16s or Elite Eights. Mentions of the WNIT championship in 2001 are not easy to locate, either.

The message thus is subtle but clear: Final Four, national championship or bust – with bragging about the Big Ten mixed in, of course.

And ultimately Foster, who was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in June, did a lot of good for a previously proud but then struggling program even though he never enjoyed a postseason breakthrough at the national level during his stay in Columbus.

He immediately got the Buckeyes back to the NCAA tournament after a three-year drought, but some dissatisfaction may have already started to creep in when his second Ohio State team lost a second-round home game to Boston College (though the Golden Eagles were the better seed).

Foster's third Ohio State team made the Sweet 16 in 2005, but a veteran squad the next season failed to build on that postseason success. The 2006 Ohio State team is one of the best in school history – going 29-3 and winning the Big Ten regular-season and postseason titles – but lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, again to Boston College, as a No. 1 seed.

That did not sit well with some of the longtime Buckeye faithful, nor did it help build support from those casual fans who might not tune in until March, but Foster's program kept chugging along. The Buckeyes won five more Big Ten regular-season titles and four conference tournament crowns in the next six years, but the tag of postseason underachievers never left them.

Foster took them to two more Sweet 16s, in 2009 and 2011, but that was not enough to win back some of the fans stung by previous early exits in March.

Not helping that matter were first-round flops in 2007 and '08 nor a second-round loss as a No. 2 seed to Mississippi State in 2010 despite a roster containing four McDonald's All-Americans and state players of the year from Ohio, New York, Illinois and Minnesota.

By the time the 2012 Buckeyes, who played an exciting up-tempo style with senior point guard Samantha Prahalis at the controls, lost in the first round to Florida as a No. 8 seed, it felt like support from fans for Foster was going to be hard to regain.

Average attendance dipped each of the last three years of his tenure, from 3,822 in 2010 to 3,578 last season. After the disappointing finish to the 2006 season, it never again approached the 6,874 average of that year.

Recruiting, too, suffered in the later years of Foster's Ohio State tenure.

He signed seven McDonald's All-Americans in his first eight years at Ohio State but none in the past four classes. He didn't sign anyone in the early period last year but said he hoped he could take some of the scholarships he saved from the class of 2013 and use them for an especially deep 2014 group in Ohio.

While Foster had the Buckeyes in the game for several of those potential stars during their junior season last year, questions inevitably arose about how long he would remain the head coach, especially with Ohio State posting its first sub-.500 mark in the Big Ten and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in his tenure.

Though they did not say it out loud, that concern likely weighed on the minds of OSU athletics director Gene Smith and associate athletics director Miechelle Willis, who made the decision to fire Foster in March.

They hired Foster's successor a few weeks later, and Kevin McGuff expressed his gratitude for his predecessor's work during the press conference in which he was introduced.

"His success here is a very, very important part of the legacy of Ohio State women's basketball," McGuff said. "The tradition is very strong, so I thank Jim for all that he did and leaving so much in place. For me to come behind him is a great opportunity."

McGuff then got to work trying to make the future even brighter, and early returns are positive. He scored three verbal commitments – twin sisters Chelsea and Kelsey Mitchell and Alexa Hart – in late July then added another topflight Ohioan – Makayla Waterman – in August.

When Michigan guard Asia Doss committed in late September, McGuff had five recruits in all for his first Ohio State class, including four from the ESPN/HoopGurlz national top 100.

That is a good start to replenishing the program roster, but he continues to pursue a couple of highly regarded out-of-state prospects for this year while looking to put together another topflight class next year.

He still has two more scholarships available for 2014 (they could also be used in the late signing period next spring) then will be able to sign another four for 2015.

That means in just two years McGuff can turn over 11 of 15 spots on the roster, allowing him plenty of flexibility to build the type of team he wants.

And what type of team is that?

According to the coach, it is one that should play a crowd-pleasing, up-tempo style at both ends of the floor.

It will be interesting to watch that be implemented because turning up the rate of play was something Foster tried to do at times in the second half of his Ohio State tenure but with mixed results.

While Prahalis was one of the top high-speed pilots in the country, the Buckeye attack bogged down frequently. Whether that was a result of too little help or a program not quite committed to a complete makeover is hard to say with certainty, but it was hard not to get the impression the Buckeyes were somewhat stuck in between styles over the past few years. And while they tried to play fast, they sometimes let things slide on the defensive end, a problem that was exacerbated by the occasional slowdowns on offense.

The defensive breakdowns were surprising to see in a Foster team, but they gradually became more and more of an issue as the Buckeyes allowed more easy baskets without necessarily getting their fair share at the other end.

Rebounding – another effort area – also suffered in the last few years, leading one to conclude perhaps a new voice was needed to kick-start the program, particularly with attendance and recruiting on the wane.

Ohio State certainly seems to have someone different in McGuff, who at 43 is 22 years younger than Foster.

While generally a treat to cover for his willingness to talk basketball, ability to go on to any number of other topics and drop interesting analogies into everyday conversation, Foster was at the helm of a program that had apparently peaked under his leadership. It was hard not to get the impression a change might be best for all involved, and he has landed on his feet as head coach at Chattanooga.

Meanwhile, McGuff inherited a small group of 11 scholarship players for his first season in Columbus, and it will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes deal with new voices, a new style and a very difficult schedule.

While the roster is low on players considered can't-miss prospects in high school, there is clearly plenty of talent to work with, beginning with senior center Ashley Adams and sophomore guard Ameryst Alston.

The skill sets are varied and figure to present a challenge for McGuff and his staff to mold into a team that can contend in the Big Ten and earn an NCAA tournament berth this year.

Few expected last season's squad to be a top conference contender despite the presence of All-Big Ten guard Tayler Hill, but the 18-13 record and 7-9 Big Ten mark were still disappointments in the end.

Those figures were reached in part by taking advantage of a soft preseason schedule but also in spite of a myriad of physical setbacks, including an illness that bothered Hill for much of the season and an injury that caused fellow senior guard Amber Stokes to miss about a month of action.

Their exit presents opportunities for plenty of new faces to step into new roles, and it gives the new coaching staff a chance to start clean. The future is bright already, but McGuff and his assistants can begin to make their mark this season by propelling their first team to or perhaps beyond their potential.

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