Ohio State scoring machine Kelsey Mitchell is a reluctant superstar

Entering a first-round game against No. 14 George Washington, Kelsey Mitchell needs just 31 points for second place on the NCAA's all-time scoring list. Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The plan was for a short pregame presentation to honor Kelsey Mitchell for reaching 2,000 career points. As reasons for that sort of photo opportunity go, and programs come up with some dubious ones in the interest of self-promotion, it wasn't frivolous. She was still a junior at the time, the fastest player in NCAA history to reach the milestone. Even now, only 18 active Division I players have scored 2,000 points.

A member of the media relations staff ran the details by Mitchell the morning of the intended game. She didn't complain or make a big deal about it, but she asked a simple question.

Did they really have to do it?

Well, no, was the reply. It didn't make much sense to make the person the presentation was intended to celebrate uncomfortable. So they scrapped the plan. They began the game without fanfare. Which is how Mitchell would generally prefer that life proceed: just playing the game.

"I'm going to be straight up and down with you," Mitchell said recently. "Basketball was the most fun for me when the spotlight, cameras, media wasn't important."

The spotlight has never been brighter than it is as her final NCAA tournament begins.

It isn't just that Mitchell, a product of Cincinnati who stayed close to home for college, has a chance to lead Big Ten champion and third-seeded Ohio State to an improbable-but-not-impossible Final Four appearance in Columbus. She is also chasing history. With 3,363 career points entering Saturday's first-round game against No. 14 George Washington (ESPN2, 1:30 p.m. ET), she trails Jackie Stiles by 30 points for second place all time. She trails all-time leader Kelsey Plum by 164 points, which might be possible if she plays at least five more games, a total that would come with reaching the Final Four.

Yet Mitchell is much more comfortable being one of college basketball's greatest scorers than being one of its biggest stars. One is the byproduct of the other. She understands that. She isn't overly shy or scared of the stage. But she fell in love with the game, grew up with it, when she could be anonymous, when she was the little sister or daughter who tagged along to pickup games without referees, clocks or coaches.

Those experiences in Cincinnati or on trips to visit family in Memphis made her a great player -- and an uneasy star.

"I had a lot of people I grew up with, in the neighborhoods and the city in general, that wasn't a part of organized sports," Mitchell said. "Their parents maybe could have not afforded it. They weren't into it like that, or they were into the streets in a way, shape or form. Or they were just into other stuff.

"That's where my comfort zone was, with the people that had no -- there wasn't much meaning behind it. It was just playing to play. And that was the best thing about it."

Mitchell had a decorated basketball upbringing in organized settings, of course. Her dad, Mark, now an Ohio State assistant, was a successful high school and AAU coach. More words were written about her time at Princeton High School than are expended chronicling many college careers. Coaches packed the stands for her AAU games. But the way she makes it sound, those were settings in which to display, and hone, all that she learned on her favorite courts.

"It was so much I learned in street basketball that you never thought you'd see unless you was playing it," Mitchell said. "I got a chance to be a part of really, really intense street-ball games. You learn so much about the mentality of the game, who got that 'it' factor and who don't. Usually games go to 12, so who's going to make this last shot to make it 12 from 11. There were just so many moves. The style, the form of street ball is so much more different."

That affection remains. During the offseason at Ohio State, even during seasons when it was warm enough, the surest places to find Mitchell were the outdoor courts on campus. She learned that they play to 12 points in Columbus, with baskets worth one or two points, instead of 16 like at home or 10 where she used to play in Memphis. She learned what fouls could be called. She made friends who treated her less like an All-American and more like just another person, albeit one you wanted on your team if you wanted to hold the court.

No one ever planned a photo opportunity before those games. No one tried to ask her how she felt about how she played. There weren't any cameras or microphones. It was just baskets and a ball.

It's not that Mitchell struggles in the spotlight. Although not a natural talker by her own admission, she is nonetheless engaging when she speaks. She comes across as someone it would probably be a blast to watch a game with, to listen to her explain what she sees. Attention just isn't her joy.

"I've definitely grown to tolerate stuff like this. I'm grateful for it because it's a platform that not many basketball players get to be a part of," Mitchell said. "But I've grown to tolerate it because I've never been one to enjoy it. I don't like it. I hate it. But I'm learning."

The existential question for Ohio State almost since Mitchell arrived has been how best to build around her. As the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles this season, as well as two wins against Stanford and an overtime thriller against Louisville, can attest, it can work as well as it did for Washington with Plum or Southwest Missouri State with Stiles. But there are times when the Buckeyes look like a team that can't keep up with Mitchell any better than the opponent can, or worse, they look like they don't think they will need to against overmatched opponents.

Hers isn't an easy identity for an entire team to take on.

"I think we've done that from a standpoint of she's such a gifted offensive player," said Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff, who also signed Plum at Washington. "And she's so unique in how fast she can play, and we've all kind of come with that. Even I have. I've crafted part of our style based on how good she is with her talent and making sure she's in a position to be successful."

He also said Mitchell's legacy is secure regardless of what happens in the days ahead. That is evident in Ohio State's standing now compared to when she arrived, then a program in flux as it transitioned from the Jim Foster era to McGuff. But so much of what happens in Mitchell's remaining days as a collegian depends on how she does with the spotlight.

To get back to Columbus, where the Buckeyes will host the first two rounds, and play in the Final Four, she likely needs to be the star around whom a team rallies. She needs to be not only comfortable taking the proverbial shot to get from 11 to 12 but also comfortable in the spotlight and able to make her teammates comfortable. She can't just play.

Among the many records that fell by the wayside over the past four seasons, Mitchell became the NCAA Division I career leader in 3-pointers during a tournament in Las Vegas this season. Earlier in the same event, teammate Alexa Hart scored her 1,000th career point. When the team returned to Columbus, the staff again approached Mitchell with a plan for a pregame ceremony. She wanted to know if it was for both milestones, the 3-pointers and Hart's points. Assured that it was, that they would be on the court together, she assented.

"I'm still trying to learn and figure out everyone and how they feel about the game," Mitchell said. "How I feel about it, my mentality for it, might be different than others. But with that being said, maybe we can coexist. I'm learning that. You can't exactly put an answer on how you get people to follow what you do because in a way, I follow them. I've got to find a way to sacrifice some things for myself and try to buy in to what they have going."

She knows how to be great when nobody knows or cares who she is. It's where she is happiest -- when it is just basketball. She's still figuring out how best to be the star that made her.