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Ohio State aiming for Final Four in own backyard

Scoring whiz Kelsey Mitchell hopes to lead Ohio State to the Final Four, which will be held in Columbus, Ohio, this season. David Hahn/Icon Sportswire

The Women's Final Four will be held in your backyard. You have a top-10 team. And one of the most dynamic players in the country is a senior on your squad. You might feel the weight of expectation just a bit -- or a ton.

For the media and fans, the storyline is irresistible: Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell and the Buckeyes possibly get to play in the season-ending showcase in Columbus, Ohio.

"We've talked about it. It would be a great thing for our program and this community," Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. "I don't want it at the forefront of what we do and talk about on a daily basis, but it is a reminder and kind of a backdrop type of thing, in terms of motivation."

If it happens, it will be in the season marking the 25th anniversary of Ohio State's last -- and only other -- Women's Final Four appearance, which was also led by an Ohio native who was a scoring whiz. That was Katie Smith as a freshman in 1993; her 28 points in the final were outdone only by Texas Tech's Sheryl Swoopes with 47, as the Buckeyes fell 84-82.

Ohio State at last making a return trip -- when playing in the Final Four would require just a few minutes' drive for the Buckeyes -- would seem like things coming full-circle. But that's a narrative to be applied only after the fact. Ohio State has to make it happen, which is a day-by-day grind.

If there's one conference that understands a pragmatic approach to this season, it's the Big Ten. The league has felt in transition, with new members Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska in recent years. Having the East Coast connection of the Terps and Scarlet Knights has opened a little more recruiting ground for Big Ten teams, and some coaching changes have brought different philosophies into the league.

But while it might sound overly harsh to whittle an entire league's experience to one word, "disappointment" might best cover the Big Ten last season.

Not because there weren't team and individual highlights or a sense that certain programs were making progress. The league celebrated a postseason title, as Michigan claimed the WNIT championship with an 89-79 triple-overtime victory over Georgia Tech.

But before the Wolverines went on their WNIT run, coach Kim Barnes Arico endured what she called "probably one of the most disappointing nights of my life." That was Selection Monday, when Michigan didn't get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, a crushing blow for a team that saw making the Big Dance as a major goal.

The Wolverines return two stars in senior guard Katelynn Flaherty and junior center Hallie Thome, and they are picked to finish third in the Big Ten. The Wolverines were one of four Big Ten teams -- with Indiana, Iowa and Penn State -- in the 2017 WNIT.

Four others -- Maryland, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State -- reached the NCAA tournament. The Terps and the Buckeyes were the last two standing before being ousted in the Sweet 16.

Entering this season, Ohio State is picked to win the Big Ten, with Maryland to finish second. The Terps' high projection comes despite their losing so much from a 32-3 team: their top three scorers (Brionna Jones, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Destiny Slocum), top rebounder (Jones) and assists leader (Slocom). Jones and Walker-Kimbrough graduated and went to the WNBA. Slocum transferred to Oregon State.

Despite all that, Terps coach Brenda Frese maintains her trademark optimism, saying, "We'll be rebuilding in the nonconference, but we'll be ready for March." Returning starters Kaila Charles and Kristen Confroy hope to lead that charge, and Jones' younger sister, Stephanie, should step forward, too. Both Charles and Jones scored 27 points in Maryland's exhibition victory Sunday over Glenville State.

There will be some new faces this season for Maryland -- including Florida transfer Eleanna Christinaki when she becomes eligible -- but the Terps, one way or another, tend to figure it out.

Maryland has essentially owned the Big Ten since leaving the ACC prior to the 2014-15 season. The Terps are 49-3 in regular-season Big Ten play -- their only losses are to Ohio State -- and they've won all three Big Ten tournaments in which they have competed.

"She's gotten in the best shape of her life. ... I've actually never been around a player, in over 20 years coaching, who's done more in terms of her diet to change her body."

OSU coach Kevin McGuff on forward Stephanie Mavunga

But this year, it's the Buckeyes -- who shared the Big Ten regular-season title with Maryland last season -- who are predicted to have the upper hand. On Sunday in its exhibition opener, Ohio State beat defending Division II champion Ashland 110-80.

Senior forward Stephanie Mavunga had 28 points and 23 rebounds. She averaged a double-double last season (11.4 PPG, 10.8 RPG) but missed 13 games due to injuries. McGuff said she's healthy.

"She has had an unbelievable offseason," he said. "She's gotten in the best shape of her life. She's really taken her physical stature to another level. I've actually never been around a player, in over 20 years coaching, who's done more in terms of her diet to change her body. She's really getting up and down the floor and doing a wonderful job right now."

Mitchell also scored 28 points Sunday, and this should be the crowning season of her stellar career. The Cincinnati native enters the season with 2,553 points -- 974 points shy of the NCAA Division I record of 3,527 set last year by Washington's Kelsey Plum.

Plum broke the previous mark of 3,393 set by Missouri State's Jackie Stiles in 2001. Based on her three-year career average of 24.5 PPG, Mitchell needs 40 games -- that means a Final Four run -- to pass Plum, according to Riley Foreman of ESPN Stats & Info. Mitchell's best single-season scoring total was 889 (26.1 PPG) as a sophomore. Even if she averaged that this season, she'd need 38 games to pass Plum.

But Mitchell and the Buckeyes might be most successful if she doesn't have to carry quite that heavy a load. McGuff said Mitchell benefited from playing with USA Basketball this offseason -- for the U23 team at the Four Nations tournament in Japan and at the senior national team training camp in California.

"She was taking steps toward making sure the team runs smoothly as a point guard and that she communicates," he said. "She has a little more sense of what it means to be a great leader and that she executes at a high level."

Mavunga seems likely to have a bigger season scoring than she did last season. If players such as Sierra Calhoun, Linnae Harper, Alexa Hart, Asia Doss, Makayla Waterman and Jensen Caretti all play to their potential, the Buckeyes could be a force.

They'll get a little sense of what a Final Four might be like early on. The Buckeyes host Stanford, which advanced to its 13th Final Four last season, on Nov. 10 at St. John Arena. Then in a Nov. 12 doubleheader at Nationwide Arena, where the Final Four will be played, Ohio State meets Louisville and Stanford takes on 11-time NCAA champion UConn.

Maryland is the last Big Ten team to make it to the Final Four, and that was in 2015, when the Terps were in their first season in the league. Rutgers, when still in the Big East, last made the Final Four in 2007. Michigan State is the last longtime Big Ten member to go to the Final Four, in 2005. Purdue (1999) is the only team to win an NCAA title as a member of the Big Ten.

"We try to have a great process every day to make sure we get better," McGuff said. "That we take steps toward building an identity that will allow us to get there. Specifically, we know we have to get better defensively and be a better rebounding team.

"I think we have more of the right people in the program than we've ever had. I'm hoping from a chemistry and culture standpoint, that's going to allow us to push through and hopefully be playing at our highest level when we get to March."