Older, wiser Kelsey Mitchell expected to have stronger cast around her

Kelsey Mitchell set 29 single-season or single-game records as a freshman, and led the country with 24.9 PPG. Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The better the original, the more difficult the sequel.

Such perils might seem apt when it comes to the sophomore season of someone who was the first freshman in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring. Despite playing in the Big Ten and against the 19th-best schedule in the country, Kelsey Mitchell exceeded the hype that accompanied an in-state product to Ohio State. One of the nation's top recruits, she nonetheless surprised most, her coach included, with just how easily she bent the college game to her will.

To improve on a season in which she averaged 24.9 points per game, led the Buckeyes back to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence and was an All-American seems daunting, if not impossible. Unless, of course, your review of that debut was more scathing than glowing.

Unless you are this blunt when asked what wasn't good enough about the original.

"Honestly, everything," Mitchell said.

Come again?

"My maturity level was not where it was supposed to be," Mitchell elaborated. "I think in some instances I had a lot of growing to do. As the games went on, I think I did get a little better, but after it's all said and done, after we lost to North Carolina [in the second round of the NCAA tournament], there was a lot of maturing I had to do."

"Being able to make the right plays and do the right things and make the right decisions as a point guard, I think I failed tremendously at that." Kelsey Mitchell, on her freshman season

A year older and wiser, even if most everyone else felt she showed poise beyond her years the first time around, she thinks the sequel can be better. Yet if she's right, it might mean fewer of the points that turned so many heads a season ago. Not too many fewer, mind you. But with a better cast around her, if only because it is so much bigger, this will be an ensemble script.

It is just the project she's looking for.

"Being able to make the right plays and do the right things and make the right decisions as a point guard, I think I failed tremendously at that," Mitchell said. "Just in some game-time situations, I don't think I made the right decisions as a player, as a point guard."

Perhaps, but by this time a season ago, Ohio State had already lost three players to season-ending injuries: Kianna Holland, Chelsea Mitchell (Kelsey's twin) and Makayla Waterman. A fourth, Kalpana Beach, followed not long thereafter. And still one more player, Shayla Cooper, wasn't eligible for the first semester as a transfer. So when the Buckeyes opened the season with a loss against Virginia, the bench accounted for just 25 minutes -- and Beach played 20 of those minutes.

Mitchell and all-conference selection Ameryst Alston ultimately took 52 percent of Ohio State's shots a season ago. By way of comparison, the All-American tandem of Breanna Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis accounted for just 35 percent of Connecticut's shots. That wasn't selfishness on the part of the two Buckeyes; it was a necessity for a short-handed team. It also was the primary building block in turning a 17-18 mark a season earlier into a 24-11 record.

So if Mitchell's objective for this season is to sharpen her mental game, success will depend at least in part on the team that is physically around her. It depends on the people to whom she will make the right pass or rely on to do what little she cannot. People like Beach, Chelsea Mitchell and Waterman, all now healthy. People like Holland, a top-50 recruit who did not play as a true freshman at Duke and then sat out last season at Ohio State with a torn ACL.

"[Holland] is like an old-school young person," Kelsey Mitchell said. "She has an old heart, and it's genuine. I think she always wants to see everyone do well. She's such a genuine person, she's always set out to make sure everyone is doing well and worry about them not [only] on the court but off the court, too. She's one of those people. You have to love her for that; you have to adore her."

Holland begins the season in the unusual role of a co-captain who hasn't played a minute of college basketball. Kelsey Mitchell and Alston operate on the same wavelength, a blessing for what might otherwise have been a discordant dynamic between scorers, but that communication is primarily silent. Mitchell is more comfortable these days vocalizing what she sees, and Alston acknowledged that speaking up more often is one of her goals, as it was a season ago. But even as the senior said as much, she lapsed into silence. Her actions will always speak loudest.

So one way in which Holland can make life easier for the All-Americans is, well, loud and clear.

"She's very vocal. That's one of the reasons why, as a team, we chose her to be one of our captains. She's very engaging," Alston said. "... She's been through a lot with her body, even before she got here, and for her to still be very engaged and the loudest one on the bench, I think that says a lot about her character."

All involved also make clear that in addition to intangibles, Holland brings tangible 3-point shooting to a lineup that, other than Cait Craft, relied on Mitchell and Alston to provide most of those, too. If Holland can come out of the gates with a hot hand, that would be welcome.

Opening with the kind of schedule it hopes to face in the season's final week, No. 6 Ohio State travels to No. 2 South Carolina on Friday and then returns home just in time to host No. 1 Connecticut on Monday (ESPN2, 5:30 p.m. ET).

"I wanted to play them both; I didn't necessarily want to play them back-to-back," coach Kevin McGuff said.

"I wanted to play them both; I didn't necessarily want to play them back-to-back." OSU coach Kevin McGuff, on playing South Carolina and UConn

Still, he noted, better to play both than neither, if that's what the schedules dictated. The Buckeyes aren't likely to feel sorry for themselves if the results don't go their way.

Mitchell acknowledged that the lack of depth a season ago eventually took a toll, more mental than physical, but she was at her most animated in dismissing that toll as worthy of sympathy. She contended that the team "carried that excuse on too long," and placed the blame on herself. After all, Connecticut didn't roll in waves of reinforcements a season ago, and it seemed to do just fine, something that did not go unnoticed or unused as a teaching tool in Columbus.

The schedule is similarly no excuse.

"You take the challenge," Mitchell said. "Whether it's a win, lose or draw, you embrace it because those great teams make you better as a person, as a player, even as a friend, as a sister."

Even with Alston and Craft in their final seasons, there is reason to think Ohio State's time is still a year away. Come next fall, Mitchell and Alexa Hart, already a game-altering shot-blocker and rebounder, will be seasoned juniors, and transfers Stephanie Mavunga and Sierra Calhoun will be eligible for the first time. McGuff said the goal when he took over was to compete for the conference title and "to some degree nationally" by his third season. But the moment Mitchell signed, the clock started ticking toward the day she will leave. There will be only four installments of the series.

And while sequels are difficult, they are still easier than finding another original worthy of one.

"More than anything, I had a sense of urgency to try to put her in a position to play on teams that could compete nationally," McGuff said of Mitchell. "Because that's what she deserves, with as good a player as she is."