The secret behind undefeated Ohio State’s innovative rebuild

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A dozen folding chairs have been moved from one side of Ohio State’s practice gym to the other, lined up in two rows facing a flat-screen. This portends the Very Important Work of watching tape on the next opponent. But before that, there is the Apparently Also Very Important Work of trying to bounce a basketball into the ball rack from a good 20 to 30 paces away, give or take, as opposed to just walking over and putting it there.

Our competitors on an early January afternoon are Taylor Mikesell, the Buckeyes’ deadeye leading scorer, and assistant coaches Carla Morrow and Wes Brooks. They start right before Enzo Ortiz’s “Always on Time” remix ironically kicks in over the sound system. Nearly 10 minutes pass. Nobody pulls off the trick. Nobody seems inclined to stop until someone does. And that, finally, is Mikesell, who racks her ball off one bounce. She flashes a No. 1 sign as she walks to the ad hoc film room, where multiple teammates sing when she arrives.

The next night in Minnesota, Ohio State comfortably secures a 16th win in 16 tries. Nothing’s actually easy about putting together the best start in program history. Particularly not when a semi-risky philosophical reset preceded it all. Still, it’s hard to imagine a group more at ease with who it is. “To be honest with you, it’s hard to get on our bad side,” says Jacy Sheldon, the Buckeyes’ All-Big Ten senior guard. We’re all really different. We get along. It works. Big personalities, small personalities – we all fit.”

Make it a 19-0 stampede and a No. 2 spot in the national rankings as of Monday, just as Caitlin Clark and Iowa visit for what might be the most significant matchup of the Big Ten season. The reasons for the Buckeyes’ run – six players averaging double-figure scoring and relentless defensive pressure that forces 23.1 turnovers per game, most notably – are more like symptoms. Data that’s proof of concept. Without a subtle but calculated sea change after a successful season that didn’t feel very successful, it’s possible none of the pieces fit this well. Or at all.

The 2017-18 version of Ohio State won 28 games and a Big Ten championship. It featured a two-time league player of the year in Kelsey Mitchell. It ranked 10th in the final, pre-NCAA Tournament poll. It then imploded in the second round of that event, losing by 17 points to 11th-seed Central Michigan, finishing woefully short of its potential. It was the sort of sad-trombone ending that can make a coaching staff reconsider everything, because everything feels off. So that’s what Kevin McGuff did.

When the Buckeyes’ head coach and his staff convened for the postseason autopsy, they probed deeper than what-went-right and what-went-wrong; they examined their core approach. They’d amass a lot of talent over five years on the job, because that’s what most coaches would do after going from a place like Xavier to a place like Ohio State. But the talent wasn’t cohesive enough when it mattered. It didn’t fit. Nobody wanted to fill a role; they all craved the biggest imaginable role, and it was impossible to satisfy everyone’s expectations. The discussion started there and eventually led to a tricky conclusion: Ohio State wouldn’t try to recruit the best possible players anymore. Not strictly anyway. Ohio State instead would try to build the best teams it could.

“Seems simple and logical — but sometimes harder to do,” McGuff says now, not long before another day spent in the gym with the end product of this plan. And, quite frankly, a little scary. Basically you’re saying we’re going to have to win with a little less talent. As a coach, you know that’s possible. You see it happens. But it’s also a little scary, too, because to reach our goals here, to compete for championships and deep runs in the tournament, there’s also a certain amount of talent you do have to have.”

Conveniently – and not coincidentally – the state of Ohio teemed with the Class of 2019 high school talent. McGuff and his staff banked on that to kick-start the plan. (A bridge year of sorts in 2018-19 was a 14-15 slog.) The home state prospects Ohio State coveted and eventually signed were very good: Rikki Harris (No. 29 in HoopGurlz’s national rankings), Sheldon (No. 41) and Madison Greene (No. 61) hardly were off-radar finds. But that was a sliver of the evaluation. “They always played hard, whether it was in high school or the third game on a Thursday night at an AAU event,” McGuff says. They also played for winning programs and, simply, played well with others. As foundational avatars for the program personality McGuff envisioned, they were ideal. If it didn’t work with that trio, it probably wasn’t going to work at all.

When both Sheldon and Greene emerged as starters by the middle of their freshman year – Harris missed that season due to a shoulder injury – it looked like it could work. The trio now has a combined 151 career starts among them. Ohio State, in the end, effectively has players with elite ability because they were willing to become that after they arrived. “What looked like maybe a little less talent, hanging our hat on culture and cohesion, has ended up being pretty good talent, because they’ve committed to working and developing,” McGuff says.

The karma was fairly instant – Ohio State enjoyed a seven-win jump in 2019-20 – but blowing out the air ducts took a little more time. It wasn’t until last spring that the Buckeyes returned to the NCAA Tournament, in a surprising Sweet 16 run that recalibrated the outlook for this season. “All the people we had, they were good people, but I don’t think they were all good for the program,” Harris says. “We all got along, we had great moments together, but those who left, left for a reason.”

What remains is a not-so-safe space, in the most constructive way imaginable.

The Buckeyes like each other. They really do. “Before this season started we were with each other all day, every day, until maybe 2 or 3 in the morning,” Harris says. They don’t appear to have many agendas, if any, as reflected in the on-floor scoring balance. “Having that want for your teammates to succeed, having a want to see everyone do well every night, is everybody’s main focus,” Sheldon says. And it shows.

They also have the collective contact of a cinder block. During competitive drills in practices, things are said. Things that are not nice. Things that, under normal circumstances, get people into their feelings. “Might be really blunt,” Harris says. “Could be hurtful. But it’s honest. We tell each other how it is.” They know each other well enough to know what ticks each other off, and as Harris concedes, sometimes it’s not an accident when those wires are tripped.

Ohio State’s Rikki Harris says the Buckeyes know how to push each other. (Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Ask the Buckeyes for specific examples, and they strain to come up with any. Every day is like that. It is their default setting. “At first when I got here, some of the things that went on in practice, I’m like, wow — I think if that happened on my high school team or AAU team or whatever, friendships would’ve been broken,” sophomore Taylor Thierry says.

Here, it’s oxygen. It permits the Buckeyes to exist in a hyper-competitive state, at all times, which matters a great deal when you press on 45.4 percent of your opponent’s possessions, according to Synergy Sports. This is Ohio State’s identity and, in large part, the reason why it has been as good as it has been; Opponents are overaging a meager. 708 points per possession. Tip-toeing through is not a viable tactic.

Less common is this roster’s collective ability to compartmentalize the candor and still function as a unit. But then that’s maybe why not every team starts a season 19-0.
“What’s on the basketball court stays on the basketball court, which is cool,” says Mikesell, who would have perspective on it, being on her third college stop. “You can be really competitive on the court and then go hang out off the court like nothing happened. It’s rare.”

Or as Thierry puts it: “We don’t take anything personal. We don’t have bad energy with anyone.”

Not even with McGuff, who isn’t predisposed to be overly delicate. “I’m pretty on them every day about how hard we practice,” he admits. The 53-year-old native of Hamilton, Ohio, certainly deserves credit for constructing a roster that best suits his demands. He’s self-possessed enough to let his assistants run the film scout, but once the Buckeyes slide over to the main floor to begin another day of pre-Minnesota preparation, the vibe is crackling, a direct product of the head coach’s energy.

As three groups rotate through five-on-zero offensive sets, there is not a lot of lenience in the air; Most of McGuff’s directives feature the words “Quickly!” and “Go!” or some combination thereof.

Miss a layup or fail to prevent a score in a close-out drill? The Buckeyes hear a refrain from McGuff so common that they smile at it, like it’s a running joke: “Go see Clare,” the directive that precedes a two push-up penalty meted out by director of strength and conditioning Clare Quebedeaux.

Nobody’s calling OSHA. It’s a coach who prefers an aggressive style, ensuring the urgency of his players doesn’t slip. But it’s telling that McGuff sees it as more or less the only item on his to-do list. “I actually coach basketball for the most part these days,” he says with a laugh. “Where there’s been a lot of years where it wasn’t about coaching basketball, at all. That’s one of the best signs to me that we have a great culture, that I’m actually coaching basketball and not managing off-court issues.”

A lot of other variables, of course, had to line up to get Ohio State here. Mikesell had to triple-back to her home state after stops at Maryland and Oregon and develop into a conference player of the year candidate, pouring in 18.5 points per night on 40.1 percent shooting from 3-point range. “Bet yourself,” she says now. “It brought me back here.” Rebeka Mikulasikova had to develop into a 6-4 post who can stretch the floor with 37.9 percent 3-point shooting, enabling the Buckeyes to tax a defense by giving its guards and wings more space to operate. Thierry’s confidence in her shot had grown; she’s shooting 66.9 percent from the floor as a sophomore. Freshman Cotie McMahon, a top 25 prospect, had to be as advertised; she’s started all 19 games and averages 12.5 points per night.

And a lot still has to happen for Ohio State to end up where it wants to be, and keep it there. Short term, that means weathering the continued absence of Sheldon, who averaged 19.7 points last season but who hasn’t played since Nov. 30 with a lower body injury. Long term, it’s McGuff and his staff resisting the temptation of talent above all else, which they appear to be doing. The Buckeyes coach recalls a not-long ago Zoom with an unidentified prospect and her parents – “She’s very good” is all McGuff will say – during which the family’s questions and demeanor raised red flags. The next day, Ohio State’s staff came to a conclusion it might not have a few years prior: not a fit.

What the Buckeyes want, now and in March and well beyond, is hard to get. They know this. They also now understand how to forge and maintain the connections and attitudes to get it.

Easy does it. Most of the time.

“Just being around us, practicing with us, seeing what we’re all about, you catch on pretty quick,” Sheldon says. And if you don’t, we’re going to make you catch on.

(Illustration: Rachel Orr/ The Athletic; (photos: Mitchell Layton, Greg Fiume, Abbie Parr / Getty Images)


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