COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kelsey Mitchell's stellar college basketball career is winding down - and so may be Ohio State's best chance to compete for the program's first national championship.
Mitchell, an All-American who decided to return to play her senior year, is one of the best ever to play for the Buckeyes. Despite her efforts, Ohio State has been knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 the past two seasons. In Mitchell's freshman year, the Buckeyes didn't get out of the opening weekend.
With a lineup laden with seniors, there is a sense that it's time. Mitchell acknowledged that past year's teams have underachieved.
"You get tired of the same thing happening," the Cincinnati native said in an unguarded moment. "I mean, I think we've reached a point in our lives off the court and on the court, you've got to make a statement. We've got to do what's needed to be done. Three years we fell short, and you can't keep (making) an excuse. We have a team right now that as long as we keep grinding we can make something happen."
Of course it's not lost on Ohio State players that the Final Four is at Nationwide Arena next spring and how special it would be to win a national championship in Columbus.
"The end of the tournament, that's where we want to be," said senior forward Stephanie Mavunga. "You do all these little things to build up to that, and that's the ultimate goal. It's going to mean a lot, especially with all the leadership and all the seniors around us."
Coming off a 28-7 record - 15-1 in the Big Ten - the No. 5 Buckeyes open the season at home Friday against No. 10 Stanford after blowing out Ashland and Urbana in exhibition games.
"Honestly, I just want us to play happy," Mitchell said. "We've always been a team that if something goes wrong our season is just shattered. That's how it feels. I just want everybody to play as free as possible, and I think that will take care of a lot of things."
Besides the 5-foot-8 Mitchell - the 2014-15 and 2016-17 Big Ten Player of the Year who averaged 22.6 points per game last season - Ohio State has returning guards Sierra Calhoun (9.5 ppg), Linnae Harper (8.4 ppg) and Asia Doss (5.7 ppg). Harper and Doss are seniors. Calhoun is a junior.
The 6-foot-3 Mavunga averaged 11.4 points and 10.8 rebounds in an injury-shortened season. The Buckeyes also have game-tested bigs in 6-foot-3 senior Alexa Hart (4 points, 4.8 rebounds) and 6-foot-2 junior Makala Waterman (3.3 points, 3 rebounds), although both were slowed by injuries in the preseason.
"We have a lot of veterans on the team, so I think we know exactly what we need to do," Harper said. "It's up to us to hold each other accountable."
DOUBLING DOWN ON DEFENSE
McGuff said his team's glaring weakness has been defense. Addressing that has been an emphasis in the preseason.
"I feel like the kids understand that we need to improve, and so there's a sense of urgency," McGuff said. "We put more time into it than we have in the past and really tried to point toward that. It's got to be a strong part of our identity."
Mitchell put it more bluntly.
"Overall our defenses have not been good," Mitchell said. "I'm not going to lie to you, it's been bad all (three) years I've been here. It's bad because we can't piece it together for the whole season. It's always down to defense with us, and when that doesn't happen we lose."
COMINGS AND GOINGS
McGuff has added a pair of walk-ons - Columbus area prep star Savitha Jayaraman, a 6-foot-2 forward, and guard Karlie Cronin, a transfer from SMU who played for the Ohio State lacrosse team last season.
Meanwhile, forward Tori McCoy and guard Kiara Lewis transferred out of the program. Together they accounted for 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season.
McGuff will have to piece together a much better 2018 recruiting class to replace the five departing seniors.
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy