After challenging offseason, Ohio State women's basketball in good place for season
Kevin McGuff had to be strategic about his summer like he was preparing for a full-court press.
With much of the world in lockdown and quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio State women’s basketball coach was deciding what to do with a roster that returns seven players and welcomes five new ones.
While players could come in for small-group summer workouts, McGuff didn't want his newcomers to come to campus for the first time only to experience isolation in a temporary dorm room.
The result was a hybrid approach to an atypical summer that, as the Buckeyes continue preseason practices, seems to be paying dividends.
“We’re further along right now than we were a year ago (at the same time),” McGuff told The Dispatch, noting that last year’s team featured eight new faces. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised, not that I didn’t think we were going to be good with everything we have coming back, but we’ve made better progress than I thought based on not having the whole team here in the summer.”
Once the Buckeyes got the all-clear to resume on-campus workouts, McGuff made the decision that players who would be living in dorms would not be asked to come to Ohio State at that time. That meant freshman Kateri Poole, a Brooklyn, New York, native, didn’t have to attend. Nor did sophomore Rebeka Mikulášiková, who was in Colorado with family friends before returning to her home country of Slovakia, or Providence transfer Hevynne Bristow.
Those who were already in their residences, along with Westerville South products Gabby Hutcherson and Anyssa Jones, were able to participate. It’s enough to make a coach worry, especially once everyone arrived to officially start practice.
“I was pleasantly surprised that we started in a pretty good place, so some of my concerns were alleviated,” McGuff said. “It came together in a good way that when we were ready to start practice we had everybody at the same place.”
All-Big Ten forward Dorka Juhász remained in Columbus for the first part of the pandemic until travel restrictions were relaxed and she was able to return home to Hungary in mid-July. While there, she was six hours ahead of her teammates in Ohio.
“It was really challenging, but everybody handled it really well,” Juhász said. “When you come in (for practice) everybody had the same goals, everybody was very excited to play again so I think that just brought us even closer.”
The level of returning experience has helped. The Buckeyes retain all five starters from a season ago, led by Juhász and Braxtin Miller. But the smooth start to practice had as much to do with the newcomers, the two said, as it does the veterans.
Miller said she felt a strong bond with this team as she underwent a surgical procedure during the summer. That morning, she got a text message from Bristow wishing her well.
“Things like that, I think we recruited a lot of really great individual people, let alone that their basketball skills are there, too,” Miller said. “It ended up paying off and we’re working really hard. I definitely think we’re farther along because of experience but also because of how receptive everybody is.”
Now the challenge is putting that to action. The Buckeyes will play a nonconference schedule consisting entirely of home games, McGuff said, in addition to a 20-game Big Ten schedule. Last year’s team closed the regular season with a 7-2 record once the calendar flipped to February, earned a No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament and won three games before bowing out in the title game.
Can the Buckeyes build on that? Add it to the list of questions about the season, but McGuff likes where things stand.
“I felt really good about how we were playing at the end of last year and I wanted to keep that momentum going,” McGuff said. “This season is going to be so much about things we can’t control. Does somebody get COVID? Do we get shut down at a certain time? Do games get canceled?
“But from what we can control, I think we’ve done a really good job so far.”