Ohio State's road to Big Ten tournament has been one with plenty of twists this season, but now the Buckeyes have the chance to take back the top spot in the conference for the first time since 2010.
Yes, the Buckeyes won a share of the Big Ten title this year with Maryland, but the Terps are still ranked higher in the polls and are projected to be a higher seed in the NCAA tournament despite OSU toppling them 98-87 in their only matchup on Feb. 20. So how does OSU go about claiming the true top spot in the Big Ten? Beat Maryland again.
To get there though, the Buckeyes will have to get through No. 9 seed Northwestern and a semifinal game on Saturday in order to reach a likely final against Maryland. The Wildcats, whom Ohio State defeated earlier in the season 94-87 in Evanston, Ill. are fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament as they sit right on the bubble at 20-11, 8-8 on the year.
Ohio State star junior guard and Big Ten Player of the Year Kelsey Mitchell said head coach Kevin McGuff has told his team to expect everyones best shot as the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
"Coach McGuff told us, 'You have a target on your back.' It is one of those things where, every team is going to play us hard no matter what," Mitchell said. "Whether we are playing a team they say is the worst or the best - we are going to get everybody's best shot."
That first shot will come from the Wildcats, who are led by star post player and first team all-Big Ten selection Nia Coffey and the conferences defensive player of the year, Ashley Deary.
Coffey has given Ohio State problems in the past, as she is averaging 22.6 points per game in her last three games against the Buckeyes in which the Wildcats are 1-2. Coffey finished the regular season averaging a double-double, scoring 20 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, both of which rank her in the top five of the conference. The dominance of Coffey could pose problems for Ohio State who are without star post player Stephanie Mavunga for at least another week with a foot injury. Against No. 8 seed Iowa in the second round of the conference tournament on Thursday, Coffey dropped 34 points on 15 of 26 shooting to advance to play the Buckeyes.
In order to help in the rebounding effort, Ohio State guard and the Big Ten's 6th Player of the Year Linnae Harper said she and the rest of the Buckeyes will have to give extra effort on the boards to help OSU post players freshman Tori McCoy and junior Alexa Hart. Harper is not afraid to battle on the boards against taller players as she averaged 4.9 rebounds per game off the bench despite standing just 5-feet-8 inches.
"It is all about attention to detail and who wants it more," Harper said. "I think now the advantage that we have is we are so deep. We still have pieces to get the job done as far as rebounding."
Hart will likely play a big part in the effort on the glass for Ohio State despite her diminished role from a year ago. Hart started every game for the Buckeyes in 2015-16, but has started just seven this season due to the emergence of Mavunga and McCoy. Against the Wildcats last season, Hart compiled double-doubles in both match-ups and McGuff said he expects Hart to be a key for OSU's success down the stretch with Mavunga out.
"She could have sat around and pouted all year because she wasn't starting or playing as much, but she didn't," McGuff said. "She showed up every day in practice, she has gotten better and been prepared and guess what? When her number was called, she was ready. That says a lot about her."
McGuff was likely referencing Hart's performance's in Ohio State's final two games of the season in which Hart scored a season high 15 points against Maryland before tearing down 10 rebounds against Rutgers in the regular season finale.
Going up against Northwestern won't feature just great post play, but also great guard play. At the point guard spot for NU, Deary led the Big Ten in steals (3.9) and assists per game (6.5), but struggled to slow down Mitchell in the Wildcats only matchup against Ohio State this season. In the road victory over NU, Mitchell dropped 33 points and dished out seven assists back on Jan. 3. In that same game however, Deary collected a double-double scoring 10 points and dishing out an impressive 14 helpers.
Should Ohio State get by Northwestern, the Buckeyes will face either No. 5 seed Purdue or No. 4 seed Indiana. OSU played each team once in 2016-17, winning both games on the road. That experience on the road could benefit the Buckeyes as the Big Ten tournament is played in both the Boilermakers and Hoosiers home state of Indiana.
If the Buckeyes can dispatch the Wildcats and slip by the hometown Boilermakers or Hoosiers, a rematch with Maryland in the Big Ten final would seem likely. The Terps are a perfect 53-0 against Big Ten teams that are not Ohio State since joining the conference in 2014-15. Against the Buckeyes in that span, Maryland is 2-3 with its last win coming in the 2014-15 Big Ten conference tournament title game.
A win over Maryland would all but guarantee a top-four seed, home court advantage in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament and dethroning Maryland at the top of the conference, but McGuff said his sole focus is making sure the Buckeyes are taking a game-by-game approach and not looking too far ahead.
"We want to make sure we are the best version of ourselves heading to Indy," McGuff said. "With being the No. 1 seed (in the Big Ten tournament) comes responsibility and that is to show up and be the best version of ourselves that we can be.
"(Hosting in the NCAA tournament) would be a great opportunity to play in front of our fans here in Columbus. We are hopeful for that but at the end of the day, we can't control where they are going to seed us or send us so we just want to make sure regardless of where it is, we are ready to play."
The Buckeyes and Wildcats are set to tipoff March 3 at noon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.
Other Ohio State B1G Tournament Notes
- Ohio State is currently on an 11-game winning streak, which ties the longest such streak in McGuff's time at OSU.
- Last season, Mitchell broke the record for most points scored in a single Big Ten tournament game when she dropped 43 on Rutgers in the quarterfinals.
- McGuff has a 5-3 record in the Big Ten tournament since coming to OSU in 2013-14.
- In McGuff's first season, the Buckeyes broke the Big Ten tournament record for points in a game when they upset No. 1 seed Penn State, 99-82.
- Ohio State last won the Big Ten tournament in 2011 as the No. 5 seed.