Despite recent setback, No. 5 Ohio St up to big expectations
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Kevin McGuff embraced high expectations when he took the job as Ohio State women's basketball coach three years ago.
Of course when a hall of fame coach - such as McGuff's predecessor, Jim Foster - is fired, there's not a lot of wiggle room on expectations.
Foster led Ohio State to six consecutive Big Ten championships from 2005-10 and 10 NCAA tournament appearances. His 279 wins are the most in program history, but none of his teams advanced beyond the Sweet 16.
So McGuff, who grew up near Cincinnati in Hamilton, Ohio, knew what he was getting into and wasted little time getting his program online.
''I believe we have a program that can consistently compete at the top of women's basketball, certainly with anyone in the nation, certainly in the Big Ten,'' McGuff said when he was hired in April 2013.
The Buckeyes went 17-18 in their first year under McGuff, then surprised many by going 24-11 and returning to the NCAA tournament last season. They finished third in the Big Ten despite a roster that was at times reduced to six healthy players.
Fortified by better depth this season, the Buckeyes won 12 of their first 15 games this season, including a 4-0 start in the Big Ten. A loss at Northwestern on Thursday snapped an eight-game winning streak for the No. 5 Buckeyes.
Another year of seasoning for star point guard Kelsey Mitchell has helped.
Mitchell is part of a recruiting class that was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation coming out of high school, and her impact was immediate. She became the first freshman to lead the nation in scoring (24.9 points per game) last season.
She is averaging 25.2 points through the first 16 games this season and continues to make up half of one of the nation's top backcourts along senior Ameryst Alston, a two-time All-Big Ten player averaging 18.4 points.
In the frontcourt, sophomore Alexa Hart and junior Shayla Cooper are also scoring in double figures while junior Lisa Blair gives the Buckeyes a big presence in the paint at 6-6, and redshirt freshman Makayla Waterman has emerged recently as a versatile player who can provide minutes at center or forward.
Senior Cait Craft (a third-year starter) and sophomore Asia Doss have provided a lot of the little things that teams need to succeed in the backcourt.
In November, McGuff signed another highly regarded recruiting class that consists of three of ESPN.com's top 31 prospects in the country, and he has supplemented the high school talent he has cultivated with several transfers.
The latter group includes Cooper, who came from Georgetown, along with guards Kianna Holland (Duke), Sierra Calhoun (Duke) and Linnae Harper (Kentucky) as well as forward Stephanie Mavunga (North Carolina). The latter three are all sitting out this season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, although Holland has been sidelined by knee soreness recently.
The Buckeyes opened the season with an 88-80 loss at No. 2 South Carolina before getting blown out in Columbus by No. 1 Connecticut 100-56 in their second game. They lost at No. 3 Notre Dame 75-72 on Dec. 2, but were propelled into the national top five by an 80-71 win at No. 6 Maryland exactly one month later.
McGuff and Mitchell hope that is just a stepping stone, though.
''I think my team knows this: I'm not into rankings,'' Mitchell said after the Buckeyes entered the top five for the first time since January 2010. ''Don't get me wrong, I guess it's a good thing, but we just have to show up every night.''
Such a reaction couldn't have sounded better to McGuff if he had scripted it himself.
''Our kids have really embraced the concept of continuing to improve, and that's the biggest thing,'' McGuff said after his team beat Rutgers 90-78 on Jan. 10. ''We've done good things recently, but I still think there are areas we can continue to grow.
''We've just got to really keep pushing our team and emphasizing these things so we can keep getting better and prepare for our upcoming games.''