Ohio State blitzed Buffalo 88-69 to open the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Friday afternoon at St. John Arena.
That’s the kind of thing the No. 3 seed — especially one essentially playing at home — should do to a No. 14 seed, right?
Yes, but this win should not be taken for granted.
The Buckeyes not only won comfortably, they did so without one of their key players.
Senior captain Ameryst Alston, a three-time All-Big Ten player who averages 18.6 points per game this season, sat out with a sprained right wrist.
That came two weeks after she tried to play but was ineffective in a blowout loss to Michigan State at the Big Ten tournament.
That the Spartans were better than the Buckeyes sans one of their best players was not too shocking, but the manner in which they won was. Ohio State dealt poorly with adversity that day, and coach Kevin McGuff’s team had to stew on it for two weeks.
Few wins in March are a given, and injuries are an unfortunate part of the game — especially on the women’s side, where major injuries seem to happen more frequently.
Piling up as many wins as they can as McGuff builds his program is important in a lot of ways.
Nine years ago, McGuff’s predecessor Jim Foster had one of his best teams. It was deep and talented with two senior stars — center Jessica Davenport and guard Brandie Hoskins. While Davenport was the three-time Big Ten Player of the Year, Hoskins was the straw that stirred the drink.
At least until she tore an Achilles tendon during their 22nd win of the season.
The Buckeyes still won the Big Ten regular season title, but were never the same after that, losing at home to No. 24 Michigan State and absorbing a 12-point loss to a 12th-ranked Purdue team in the Big Ten tournament championship game. The latter wasn’t as close as the final score. The Boilermakers pressed the Buckeyes, making them look timid and slow.
Two weeks later, Ohio State opened the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed against No. 13 Marist.
While the Buckeyes’ Final Four hopes were likely dashed without Hoskins, the 67-63 opening-round loss to the Red Foxes was still a surprise. It also damaged the brand of Foster’s program in year five.
Coming one year after a disappointing second-round exit as a No. 1 seed at the hands of No. 8 Boston College, it fed the narrative Foster’s teams could not get the job done in the most important month of the season.
That was one he could never shake, and lack of postseason success was cited when he was fired in the spring of 2013 despite having won more games than any Ohio State women's basketball coach before him.
So far, McGuff’s teams have been more like the opposite of Foster’s in March.
They outperformed their seed in each of his first two Big Ten tournaments and nearly did so again last year in the NCAA tournament, when as a five seed they were a basket away from knocking off No. 4 North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
The way McGuff has recruited, his program appears to be headed in the right direction no matter how this March turns out, but momentum is an important thing in college sports.
So are narratives. Some fans never seemed to give Foster the benefit of the doubt after those early March flameouts, and it’s hard to quantify how much they might have hurt his recruiting.
While he proved adept at bringing in a handful of stars, he struggled to build enough roster depth to be a true national contender.
McGuff has two more years of All-American point guard Kelsey Mitchell and another star-studded recruiting class coming in. He’s also got three highly regarded transfers set to be eligible next season, so talent shouldn’t be an issue for the Buckeyes in the foreseeable future.
But there’s more to the game than physical ability, and responding the way Ohio State did, whatever the quality of the opponent, to open this tournament is a good sign for the future whether the Buckeyes are back to full strength by the time this run ends or not.