After two record-setting seasons, it’s time to face it: Ohio State junior Kelsey Mitchell could be the best play in Ohio State women’s basketball history.
The scarier thing? Mitchell is not close to finished.
In her first two years at Ohio State, Mitchell has played a key role in revamping the Buckeyes’ offense and establishing Kevin McGuff’s team as a perennial power in the Big Ten. Her 25.5 points per game average is the best in Ohio State history and she’s already in the top five in four other categories: average minutes played, 3-point field goals made, 3-point field goals attempted and free-throw percentage. The bottom line? Mitchell, an AP preseason All-American, can flat-out play.
After a fantastic freshman year in which she averaged 24.9 points with a 41.5 percent field-goal percentage, Mitchell began rounding out her game as a sophomore. She increased her scoring average (26.1), shooting percentage (45.2) and connected on just under 40 percent of her 3-point attempts. More importantly, she turned down her offensive sloppiness, reducing turnovers from 142 as a freshman to 107 last season.
Last season, Mitchell averaged a team-high 26.1 points per game, shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 39.7 percent behind the 3-point line. She also cut down on her turnovers by about 27 percent from her freshman season. Mitchell is already special, but she’s just scratching the surface of her capabilities.
“She’s obviously a great kid and one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around, and she’s a fierce competitor,” McGuff said durig Ohio State’s basketball media day.”She’s got a good feel for the game, and you see her sharing that more with her teammates. Kelsey has improved defensively, and I think you’ll see that this year. She works on her game. She’s so good, but she still works on her game relentlessly.”
What she does on the court is indisputable – Mitchell owns five single-season Ohio State records already – but to take the next step, McGuff, in his third year with the Buckeyes, says he needs a little more from his superstar as a leader.
Sometimes, McGuff says, Mitchell’s desire to make a play means she forces herself to try things she shouldn’t rather than relying on teammates to make a big play. That is changing, little by little.
“That goes back to her wanting so badly to do something to help the team win,” McGuff said. “She thinks she has to do something to help us win. I guess that’s where I see her evolving with a little more understanding of exactly what we are doing. There’s a little bit more ability to dial in and focus on execution of the entire team and where everyone has to be. That’s where I think she is going to evolve here in the next two years, which may allow her to become the best player ever.”
The best player ever at Ohio State is a title that belongs currently to Katie Smith. As a freshman in 1992, Smith led the Buckeyes to the NCAA title game, falling just short against Texas Tech. Smith would leave Ohio State as the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer (men or women) and won three Olympic gold medals. She won two WNBA titles and became the first American woman to score 5,000 points in professional basketball. The ability to put the ball in the hoop is where Mitchell and Smith are most similar, though their methods vary widely.
“We were both scorers and can both put up numbers. We could both pull up on the break and create our own shot,” Katie Smith told Land of 10. “I just did it in a different way. She has the ball more in her hands. She is more of a point guard and facilitates and dictates more.”
The bar to become “the best player ever” is a high one. That title is Smith’s as much for her impact on teammates when she didn’t score.
“Katie Smith was one of the greatest competitors and mentally tough players ever in women’s basketball at any level,” McGuff said. “I think that is one of the things that made her so special. Obviously, she was talented and all that, but she was so tough and so competitive.”
McGuff believes that his junior leader may have already surpassed Smith, who was the first female Buckeyes athlete to have her number retired by the school, from a physical standpoint. Smith doesn’t seem to argue that point while acknowledging that Mitchell’s game needs rounding out.
“Her talent has been there from the jump,” Smith said. “Now it’s all the fine-tuning of just managing games.”
“From a skill and talent point, I don’t think she is behind. She is so talented and so skilled,” McGuff said. “I mean, obviously Katie was special, but I think those intangibles really made Katie special and really separated her. Kelsey is starting to get that part of it. She has a chance, before she leaves here, to be considered, at Katie’s level. We will see.”
Mitchell is aware of the comparisons, and she’s taking the challenge to heart.
“As far as like the historical, there have been so many great players that have come through Ohio State,” Mitchell said. “To even be a part of that conversation is something that makes me really happy. I’m really grateful for it. But, like I said, I’m not really into that. I just come to the court and play and go to school and stuff like that.
“On the court, I think I have become more vocal with my teammates and helping them by example. Leading them by example and giving constructive criticism. I’m not one of those kind of people that likes to tell people what to do, but Coach McGuff has put me in that role. They have allowed me to become more talkative.”
That combination of talent and leadership exemplified by Smith are rare. There are things for Mitchell to work on, certainly. However, she has two more years to prove she is the best player in Ohio State history. Said McGuff: She’s already in rare air.
Is she the best player he has coached? “I would say so, at this point. She’s really special. She can really, really play. We’re lucky to have her here.”
As for Smith? She’s not going to say outright that Mitchell will pass her, of course, because she’s too competitive. She will say, however, that her potential is off the charts.
“It’s all up to her,” Smith said. “However far she wants to go and if her body hangs in there, she will have a lot of success no matter what.”