‘That's part of being at Ohio State’: Kevin McGuff has pressure to get Buckeyes back to NCAA tournament in ninth season

Jacob Myers
The Columbus Dispatch
"That's part of being at Ohio State,” Buckeyes women's basketball coach Kevin McGuff said of the pressure to win after failing to lead his team past the Sweet Sixteen in any of his previous eight seasons.

When you're at Ohio State, you’re expected to win championships. At times during his eight seasons, Kevin McGuff has done that as coach of the Ohio State women’s basketball team. But his two Big Ten regular-season titles haven't translated into a deep NCAA tournament run

McGuff knows there's an urgency for the Buckeyes beginning Wednesday when No. 17 OSU opens the season at Value City Arena against Bucknell.

"That's part of being at Ohio State,” McGuff said. “This is an amazing place with great resources, and it does come with high expectations, which is fine. Everyone who comes here knows what you sign up for. But for coaches like myself, (the pressure) is usually more internal than anything.” 

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Ohio State hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since 2016-17. The Buckeyes haven’t advanced beyond that point since 1993. 

McGuff’s predecessor, Jim Foster, was fired after 11 seasons leading Ohio State. He made three Sweet 16 appearances but ended up getting knocked out of the tournament seven out of 10 times to lower-seeded teams. 

McGuff has missed the NCAA Tournament twice based on the Buckeyes' record, and his team was denied last season because of a self-imposed penalty that followed an investigation into a former assistant coach's violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy.

When Kelsey Mitchell was on the roster, Ohio State reached the Sweet 16 two times and arguably should have advanced even farther, given she was of the greatest to ever play at OSU. After a rough transition year following Mitchell’s senior season, McGuff turned a young group of players into a difficult team to beat and made a run to the 2020 Big Ten championship game before the pandemic canceled the NCAA tournament. 

Last season, despite starters Janai Crooms and Kierstan Bell transferring, the Buckeyes captured signature wins against Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Maryland — the four teams picked ahead of them in the preseason this year. Even with sputtering out at the end of the year when point guard Madison Greene was unavailable, the Buckeyes somewhat overachieved.

They'll have to find out how to win this year without Greene. The program announced Tuesday she would miss the entire season with a knee injury that requires surgery.

This year, being a contender in the Big Ten looks to be even harder after top rebounders Dorka Juhasz (UConn) and Aaliyah Patty (Texas A&M) transferred out during the offseason.

Having four key players transfer in little time can create an unhappy narrative, but McGuff said it’s just the way the sport is right now, rather than anything specific with his team. 

"I just think nowadays it's like, hey, if kids want certain roles and it's not quite happening, then they're probably going to look elsewhere,” he said. “If you look around the country, that's happening everywhere. We're no different. We're not immune from it, and we won't be.” 

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff, forward Tanaya Beacham and guard Rikki Harris open their season against Bucknell Wednesday after defeating Slippery Rock 96-48 in an exhibition game last Thursday.

Recruiting local talent hasn’t been as strong lately as in past years for McGuff. If you include the recently announced addition of West Virginia transfer Emma Shumate, a Newark graduate, McGuff has signed just two of the 11 Ohio prospects ranked in ESPN's top-100 for the ‘21 and ‘22 classes combined. 

McGuff pointed out eight of 13 players on the roster are from Ohio. And it’s certainly plausible that the success of guards Greene, Jacy Sheldon and Braxtin Miller — all Ohio products — made some recruits who wanted immediate playing time reassess if Ohio State was the right place for them. 

McGuff said he doesn't believe the NCAA investigation into former assistant Patrick Klein has had an effect on recruiting, and he remains confident in their approach. 

“You can't get them all because they can't all play together,” McGuff said. “We've had to make some decisions. Some we haven't gotten, but some we decided not to pursue for certain reasons or we just had people in that position.” 

It’s fair to say Ohio State might have been able to make some noise in 2020 and ‘21 if they were normal seasons. For that to happen this year, McGuff said defensive rebounding will be a primary focus, especially after losing Juhasz and Patty. Greene was also reliable on the glass for a guard.

How much McGuff’s job security hinges on this season is unknown. (Athletics Director Gene Smith declined to be interviewed for this story.) With Greene out for the year, just getting to the NCAA tournament might be a worthy accomplishment for now.

"If we reach our potential, however that shakes out, however far we go, I'm fine with,” McGuff said. “But (I'm) just driving this team and trying to hit the right buttons to keep pushing them forward for us to be the team we're capable of being.” 

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