Survive and advance: OSU's Kevin McGuff turns in one of his best coaching jobs | Rob Oller

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff talks to forward Tanaya Beacham and guard Rikki Harris. The Buckeyes have won 13 of their past 15 games.

The thing about having your back against the wall is that the fight-or-flight decision has been made for you. With no way out, the survival instinct kicks in. Either put up your dukes or get pummeled.

Maybe the Ohio State women’s basketball team needed to feel cornered? Maybe coach Kevin McGuff did, too? The Buckeyes came out swinging this season and not only survived but thrived, sharing a Big Ten regular-season title with Iowa and earning the No. 1 seed in this week’s conference tournament in Indianapolis. They open against Michigan State at 11:30 a.m. Friday.

McGuff, meanwhile, has done some of the best coaching of his career. A good thing, too, because entering the season his employment status was a source of public debate. With the conference title, his contract is extended another year. 

McGuff’s tenure has been marked mostly by underachievement in the NCAA Tournament, where in four appearances — it would have been five if not for COVID-19 wiping out the 2020 tourney — OSU has never advanced past the Sweet 16.

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff talks to guard Hevynne Bristow. The Buckeyes have won 13 of their past 15 games.

But even in the likely event the Buckeyes again fail to reach the Elite Eight this month, they and their coach deserve praise for overcoming myriad obstacles that could and probably should have crippled the season.

The trials and tribulations have been numerous. McGuff lost his top two rebounders when Dorka Juhasz (UConn) and Aaliyah Patty (Texas A&M) transferred during the offseason, seriously limiting Ohio State’s inside presence. The transfers were head-scratchers — both players have declined to explain their decisions — and followed the departures of starters Janai Crooms and Kierstan Bell in 2020. 

Ohio State did not participate in the NCAA Tournament 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.

Coach Kevin McGuff's Buckeyes have won 13 of their past 15 games.

From bad to worse, junior point guard Madison Greene was lost to a season-ending knee injury in November. 

At that point, things looked grim. But McGuff is more buoyant than the life preserver OSU athletic director Gene Smith throws him, and by necessity went with a smaller lineup that felt like a roll of the dice. Sure enough, in December the Buckeyes lost to Indiana by 20 and to Michigan by 19. But McGuff stayed the course, making adjustments as needed to keep OSU’s head above water.

Coach Kevin McGuff's Buckeyes have won 13 of their past 15 games.

When a shoulder injury sidelined guard Kateri Poole in January, McGuff switched Jacy Sheldon to the point. Bravo. Sheldon is a shooting guard’s dream, getting the ball to the hot hand in the right spot. Typically, that hand belongs to 3-point shooter Taylor Mikesell.

A quick word on Mikesell, or rather McGuff’s smooth move to sign her. After killing the Buckeyes for two years at Maryland, the Massillon native transferred to Oregon following the 2019-20 season — Ohio State is far from the only program to lose starters to transfer — and spent one season with the Ducks before deciding to return to Ohio. 

McGuff needed a 3-point shooter. Mikesell needed to be closer to home. Voila. It took some time, but Mikesell eventually meshed wonderfully with Sheldon, and the Buckeyes found their groove by winning 13 of their last 15 games.

Coach Kevin McGuff's Buckeyes have won 13 of their past 15 games.

Even McGuff’s critics tip their cap to the job he has done. One of those tomato tossers emailed me: “I’m rethinking my assessment of Kevin McGuff. Without his philosophy we would never have gotten to see Taylor Mikesell play.”

McGuff seems to take the positives and negatives in stride, telling Dispatch reporter Jacob Myers that taking heat is “part of being at Ohio State,” adding that most of the pressure he feels is internal.

Internal pressure does not describe the Buckeyes’ locker room, which is more loose and loving than uptight and isolated.

Coach Kevin McGuff's Buckeyes have won 13 of their past 15 games.

“Our chemistry has been crucial,” McGuff said this week. “Reflecting back on what we’ve done so far in the regular season, we had the right kids … at the right time for our program to take a step forward and put the last couple of years with COVID and the postseason ban behind us.”

The Buckeyes also had the right coach to weather the storms. McGuff is as level as they come, and while he still needs to prove he can get OSU deeper into March, he deserves kudos for what has been accomplished this season.

“We’ve had ups and downs, like everybody in the league, but our ability to bounce back after tough losses and stay together and keep fighting for each other has been crucial to our success,” he said.

Credit where due. McGuff built the Buckeyes into a Big Ten champion. That may not be enough, given his vow to turn Ohio State into a national champion contender, but considering the obstacles it could have been much worse.