Column: Can a serial Ohio State make a run in the low parity world of women’s hoops?

In a sport where parity is even less of a reality than in the world of college football, it can be difficult to stand out. Perhaps that’s why it took the AP Poll some time to notice that the Ohio State women’s basketball team, which climbed to No. last week, is in full swing.

The Buckeyes are on a six-game winning streak, their last loss on the road to then-No. 9 Michigan in late December. More recently, Ohio State beat Rutgers 80-71 at Piscataway on Sunday, but the real story came last Thursday when the Buckeyes picked up a win over then-No. 12 Maryland – their first signing win of the 2021-22 season.

Against Maryland, junior shooting guard Jacy Sheldon scored her 1,000th career point as she headed for a double-double that day, while senior shooting guard Taylor Mikesell had a career-high in career 33 points.

These performances are not anomalies for an Ohio State team that has one of the best offenses in the country. The Buckeyes are collectively third in the nation in offense, anchored by Sheldon, who is 10th in the nation in points per game, averaging 21.3.

Plus, Ohio State has absolutely benefited this season with the addition of Mikesell, a transfer guard from Oregon. She is second in the nation in three-point percentage (49 percent) and three points per game (4). Mikesell arrived just in time after a season-ending knee injury to junior point guard Madison Greene in November.

In short, things seem to be going in the right direction for a team that hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2018. However, things don’t get any easier as the Big Ten season continues. Now Ohio State is looking to avenge its December loss when the Buckeyes get Michigan No. 7 at home on Thursday night. The Buckeyes will then have to turn around and face Iowa No. 23 and the nation’s leading sophomore scorer, Caitlin Clark.

Of course, making the tournament is no guarantee of success. For all their success winning the conference in the mid-2000s, the Buckeyes were never able to make the leap beyond the Sweet Sixteen (although five Sweet Sixteen appearances in 13 seasons is nothing to scoff at. ).

It’s because there’s a wall in women’s basketball that not many can get over, because there’s always been minimal parity in the world of Division I women’s basketball. UConn has 11 titles and Tennessee eight. That’s right: UConn has won nearly a quarter of all NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournaments ever played since their genesis in 1982.

It doesn’t widen much beyond the top. Out of 46 tournaments played, 31 titles are held by just seven programs. In all, only 15 programs have won at least one NCAA tournament.

However, this parity state (or lack thereof) has begun to change slightly. The last four national champions were not named UConn or Tennessee and, in fact, were four different programs. Earlier this month, UConn fell out of the top 10 in the AP poll for the first time since 2005. We’re even seeing new blood in the rankings for the first time in years (Ole Miss just made an appearance at No. 24 – the first time the Rebels have been in the polls in 15 years).

Parity takes time to break, but it’s clearly better for the sport when it happens. We see, as the first great generation of longtime coaches leave college basketball, the next generation emerges.

In direct line, seven of the late Pat Summitt’s former players currently serve as head coaches of Division I women’s basketball programs (and one Division II program). These coaching trees are certainly helping to expand parity, although, unfortunately for the Big Ten, many of these programs are concentrated in the SEC.

There is another factor that brings more democratization to the holistic basketball ecosystem, and that is women’s professional basketball as a pathway to coaching. As the WNBA has grown since its founding in 1996, so the seeds have been sown for women’s basketball at the college level to balance power across a larger ecosystem rather than with just a few teams. For example, Dawn Staley, who made a name for herself as a six-time WNBA All-Star, now coaches South Carolina and won the NCAA Tournament in 2017. The Gamecocks are also the team currently highest ranked in the country.

Plus, there’s the visibility that USA Basketball’s success at the Olympics has garnered: seven consecutive gold medals have inspired a new generation of basketball players.

Moreover, the sport of women’s basketball has simply grown organically since those early coaches took the helm. When Summitt began her career as head coach, she was just 22 and a recent graduate of UT-Martin. It was just a different game. Also, the story of his rise is a banana and deserves more space than this little paragraph offers.

Which brings us back to the Big Ten in general and the state of Ohio in particular. Currently, five Big Ten teams are ranked in the latest AP poll, led by No. 6 Indiana and No. 7 Michigan. It also doesn’t hurt that the Big Ten inherited Maryland in 2014, since the Terps haven’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 2010.

The Buckeyes are just half a game behind Indiana in what’s a close race to the top of the Big Ten. With nine games remaining on the schedule, Ohio State is putting the pieces of the puzzle together to make a run in the Big Ten and, if the pieces fall exactly the right way, be in the right position to take advantage of the fragmentation we saw at the top. of the world of women’s basketball.

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