Ohio State’s season ending with signature wins, but no NCAA Tournament run
It all ends on Friday in an entirely unceremonious way.
The No. 22 Ohio State women’s basketball team plays its 20th and final game of the 2020-21 season at No. 24 Rutgers at 8 p.m.
There is no Big Ten tournament or NCAA Tournament appearance to look forward to because of a self-imposed — but NCAA-recommended — postseason ban as a result of recruiting violations by a former assistant coach.
Coach Kevin McGuff said this week that the team deserves a break after a season influenced and shortened by COVID-19. Still, he added, it’s a shame the Buckeyes (13-6, 9-6) can’t make a postseason run that they believe would have been possible.
“We’re as good as anybody in our league, and certainly I think we measure up against some of the best teams in the country when we’re playing at our best,” McGuff said. “I think we’ve proven that. Now it’s like, hey, we’ve got to carry that into the offseason.”
The Buckeyes came back from a COVID-19 outbreak in December that paused the program for nearly a month and upon their return won three straight games against top-15 opponents — Michigan, Maryland and Indiana, three teams that entered play Thursday with a combined six league losses.
At that point, Ohio State was 6-1 in league play, but is 3-5 since then and has lost its past three games, not coincidentally when sophomore guard Madison Greene has been sidelined, presumably after testing positive for COVID-19.
When McGuff and the Buckeyes reflect on their season, it will be losses at Wisconsin and Penn State, a combined 8-29 in Big Ten play, that will sting.
But wins against Michigan, Maryland and Indiana, and two against Iowa, were proof that the Buckeyes took a major step forward in competing against the best teams in the country’s toughest conference.
They would also be entering the postseason at full strength with the return of Greene, who will be available against Rutgers. Ohio State never revealed why she missed four games, but it did have a Feb. 14 game canceled because of COVID protocols, and Greene’s subsequent four-game absence matches the Big Ten timeline for players who test positive.
The Buckeyes were 1-3 without Greene on the floor and have sorely missed her energy on the defensive end.
“Having Madison back will be awesome,” guard Jacy Sheldon said. “This game definitely still means something even though we’re not in the tournament.”
The arrival of the pandemic last March prevented Ohio State from returning to an all-but-guaranteed NCAA Tournament berth after a surprise run to the Big Ten tournament final. That game, an 82-65 loss to Maryland, showed there was a clear gap between the Buckeyes and the top dog in the Big Ten.
A loss to Rutgers would give the Buckeyes the same number of conference losses and a similar overall winning percentage to last year's team, but that doesn’t accurately reflect the improvement Ohio State has displayed.
The Buckeyes had enough good nights to climb to No. 11 in the rankings this season and start 8-2 in league play.
"A lot of that for us is our mental toughness and our confidence,” Sheldon said. “I think this year we grew in those two aspects of the game.”
McGuff said he doesn’t know if any player will leave this offseason. Forward Dorka Juhasz could forgo her final year of eligibility, but if she stays, Ohio State would return its entire starting lineup and possibly begin next season as a top-10 team.
While the Buckeyes have shown they can beat top teams, the next step for them is to avoid the inexplicable losses.
"There’s always going to be inevitable highs and lows of the season for every team,” McGuff said, “but we’ve got to be consistent from start to finish just to make sure that we get better and that we’re playing our best basketball as we head towards March next year.”
For now, the Buckeyes must be spectators for their sport’s biggest event.
“It’ll sting a little bit,” Sheldon said, “but I’m sure we’ll watch some of it."