Greg Oden is receiving a lion’s share of the spotlight in the Schottenstein Center for the upcoming basketball season, but he’s hardly the only giant taking center stage on the basketball hardwood.
Much like the humble 7-1 Oden debuting for Thad Matta’s Ohio State basketball team sometime in the next month or two, 6-5 Jessica Davenport is a subdued intimidator in her own right.
Davenport is a two-team first-team All-American and reigning back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Year. She was named preseason Player of the Year at the Big Ten basketball media day in Chicago this past weekend.
If it’s possible for the senior, who averaged 18.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks a game on top of shooting 61.8 percent from the field as a junior, to actually improve, Davenport might just have done it this off-season.
“I think there’s always room to improve – I think her passing has improved, her range obviously was shown last year with her ability to shoot the three,” said Ohio State head coach Jim Foster at the 2006 OSU Media Day. “I think probably getting to the foul line more will be a realistic goal for her this season.”
For all the hardware she’s already earned and all the championships – including a pair of Big Ten titles, there’s still one remaining challenge left for her.
“Win a National Championship,” says the former Independence High School standout and girls’ McDonald’s All-American.
In 2004-05 Ohio State shared the Big Ten crown with Michigan State. Last season, the Buckeyes won the conference outright and are preseason favorites to do so again this year.
Being a two-time All-American, Davenport is the antithesis of the kind of ego one would expect walking a mile in her shoes. But just as Oden is the poster boy for humility on Matta’s end, Davenport presents herself as the model citizen and ideal basketball player.
“I can’t think of the last time there was a center that was a three-time All-American,” Foster said of his prize center and all she brings to the table. “Most importantly with her, she should be a role model for how you handle success for younger players and young folks.”
The gentle Davenport has a calm demeanor, but she means business when the ball is tipped.
Her teammates unanimously view her as a team leader – both vocal and by example. Her quest for being a three-time All-American is accentuated by 1,664 career points.
“Jess is a great player,” said fellow senior Stephanie Blanton. “She puts a lot of heart into the game.”
Already a dominating post player, Davenport has added a new repertoire to her game this season – the ability to step out and hit the outside shot.
Last season, Davenport canned 7-of-13 three-pointers in limited attempts. She’s likely to attempt more shots this season.
“Last year I was a little apprehensive about it,” Davenport said, “but this year I’ve worked on my game and I feel pretty confident shooting out there.”
Foster loves the classic post player that can dominate the blocks. But the thought of her stepping out and hitting a few three-pointers doesn’t completely bother him.
“She shot 53 percent from there last year – my math tells me that if you shoot 60 percent for two and 50 percent from three you probably wouldn’t mind,” he explained. “The points are going to be about the same.”
In addition to trying to lead Ohio State to a National Championship in her last hurrah, Davenport is now also trying to help mold 6-5 Andrea Walker, a highly ranked freshman from Allegheny, Penn.
Walker and senior high school prospect Jantel Lavender, a 6-4 post from Cleveland Central Catholic give the Buckeyes two future potential stars underneath.
“The freshmen, they’re eager to learn,” Davenport said of the five newcomers. “Andrea has done a good job. She’s working hard and listening to what we say.”
It might seem Ohio State is in the making of a post player tradition with LaToya Turner followed by Davenport and now Walker and possibly Lavender in the future issuing a verbal commitment to the Buckeyes.
But Foster isn’t quite ready to assume the ball is rolling just yet.
“We haven’t been here long enough – if I was Jim Tressel or Pete Carroll, or for years Syracuse had that No. 44 that was a great running back,” he said. “I think it takes you to be somewhere a long time. I would like to think and hope that it would happen but I wouldn’t think after four years I could have an opinion on that.”
But one thing is for certain for Foster: Davenport has become everything they expected of her when she signed.
“I’ve had four All-American centers and I don’t look what a player is, I try to look at what a player can be or what their talents can expand to,” he said. “She was our target. We really thought that her upside was significant.”
Oden might soon hog much of the Value City Arena press clippings, but Davenport will have one more season to lay claim to her own portion of the attention.
It’s certainly not hard to miss her.