LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Ohio State women’s basketball team introduced four new potential contributors at the start of the 2016-17 season and continued to grow its depth when redshirt junior guard Linnae Harper became eligible in mid-December.
With the increased depth came increased expectations, ones that began before the season and remain 34 games later, with the fifth-seeded Buckeyes (28-6) set to take on No. 1 seed Notre Dame (32-3) tonight in a Sweet 16 matchup at Rupp Arena.
The subject of a deep NCAA Tournament run has not been taboo for Ohio State this season.
Senior forward Shayla Cooper, one of two holdover starters along with junior guard Kelsey Mitchell, spoke last month about a preseason Ohio State women’s basketball group text entitled “National Champions 2017.” She recalled later in February a locker room speech she gave to the team indicating 12 straight wins would bring a national title.
On Thursday, she elaborated that those high goals, and a willingness to discuss them, stemmed from team depth that was evident almost as soon as practices started this season.
“I think (expectations were higher) because of the competition level that we had started in practice,” Cooper said. “Coach (Kevin McGuff) knew we were a special group of kids, and I just feel like with that we had a lot of goals in mind, you know, making it to the Final Four. So this is just one step closer to what we had in mind.”
Significantly less depth, as well as a season-ending hand injury to starting guard Cait Craft, brought much different expectations entering last year’s Sweet 16. It was viewed a destination as opposed to a potential path to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend.
“I think last year we were happy to be there,” said McGuff of the 2016 Sweet 16, in which the Buckeyes took a 16-point loss to Tennessee. “I think we're certainly a different team with a different mindset. I like the way we've been playing, so I think it will be a different situation for us.”
McGuff has mentioned several times this season a want for his team to play its best basketball at the end of the season. Aside from an 11-point loss to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes have generally trended upward, winning 13 of their last 14.
But with late March basketball comes better opposition.
The Buckeyes get a Notre Dame team that hasn’t lost since Jan. 16 but one that will be without one of its two All-Atlantic Coast Conference first team selections, forward Brianna Turner, who suffered a torn left ACL in a second-round win over Purdue.
The Fighting Irish are regulars in the late rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but they also lost in the Sweet 16 last year and likewise enter today with expectations of a deep tournament run.
“I think losing in the round of 16 last year was really disappointing for us,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “It was something I think that we didn't talk about a lot during the year, but I think it was in the back of everyone's mind.”