Ohio State Is As Good As It Is Annoying
9:03 AM EST on December 1, 2022
Everyone's talking about the Ohio State Buckeyes. About their relentless defensive effort, about how well-coached and well-conditioned they are, about their can-do spirit, about their discernible sense of identity, about the cruel way they wear down opponents, about how they just went on national television and kicked ass, proving to all that the Buckeyes do belong on top. When No. 4 Ohio State fell quickly behind the struggling No. 18 Louisville Cardinals on the road on Wednesday night, it looked for a brief moment like their new AP ranking might be bogus. But in fact, this is their style: Begin quietly and crescendo into crushing final form. Down 13 points early in the third quarter, Ohio State kept ratcheting up the pressure on Louisville, and won 96-77. The mood in Columbus has never been better.
Meet the most exhilarating and annoying team in the country. Should they repeat as Big Ten champions and finally make a run past the Sweet Sixteen this season, they will do so by bothering opponents to death. Through seven games (two against ranked teams), the Buckeyes have forced 29 turnovers per game, more than any other Division-I women's team. They also lead D-I in steals per game, averaging more than 17. (The next best team in the category, Arizona, averages 13.) Ohio State's secret is simple: full-court press. For 40 minutes straight. Even typing that exhausts me. But Ohio State knows their weakness lies in the halfcourt, where their small-ish roster can be vulnerable on defense. The 6-foot-4 senior Rebeka Mikulasikova is the only experienced big in the rotation, so rather than fight losing battles on the glass, head coach Kevin McGuff deploys a lineup of four guards all instructed to go Pest Mode all the time. One way to make the rebounding battle matter less is to simply never let the other team get across the court.
Pest Mode buys them easy buckets in transition, though there's more to Ohio State's scoring than that. For all the chaos they create with the press, there's a maturity to their motion offense. The Louisville game featured three 20-point scorers, including Mikulasikova and fifth-year senior Taylor Mikesell, one of the best three-point shooters in college basketball last season. If there's a player who embodies the team best, it's probably 5-foot-10 senior guard Jacy Sheldon, a sure WNBA prospect who has—congratulations to Jacy—found herself on my List Of Players I Like. Sheldon drives with a rare blend of force and finesse; she's a marvelous athlete, but rarely does she look out of control. I've been thinking about her sort of like a running back, able to recognize these slivers of space she can speed through to get to the rim, where she unveils some new crafty finish.
Yes, Ohio State's wacky steals numbers will cool off in conference play, where four other Top-25 opponents await them. As defenses go, this one is not especially innovative or sophisticated; the answers to press defense exist, and perhaps Ohio State will face some point guards who know how to pass and dribble without melting down. But one thing to keep in mind is that all of Ohio State's opponents will be college basketball players. And to be a college basketball player is to be always on the verge of melting down. Tennessee and Louisville may not be the elite teams they were thought to be pre-season, but they're decent proof Ohio State's press can work against good teams. In Ohio State's opening game against Tennessee, the then-No. 5 Lady Vols also got out to an early lead, but crumbled under the pressure and committed 29 turnovers. (The Ohio State student section would, charmingly, go on to storm the court after the win. "Pretty incredible. I don't think I've ever seen a court storm for a women's basketball game before," Mikesell said.)
Even unflappable junior Hailey Van Lith turned the ball over eight times against Ohio State on Wednesday, the most she ever has in a college game. "We had a lot of frustration mistakes," said Louisville head coach Jeff Walz afterward. The Buckeyes may not be able to frustrate all people. But they can frustrate a whole lot of them. The hardest part of this system, really, is just finding the energy to keep it running. And Ohio State has no problem doing that.