Recent years have been pretty good for Jim Foster and the women’s basketball Buckeyes.
In his first four years as head coach at Ohio State, Foster has produced three Big Ten championships and four NCAA tournament appearances along with 130 wins.
Aside from the team success, Foster has sent six players to the WNBA, and the last two from that group provide a natural place to start the story of his fifth Buckeye team.
When the 2007-08 Buckeyes were unveiled to the media for the first time Wednesday the first questions inevitably began with how Foster plans to replace Jessica Davenport, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2007 WNBA Draft, and Brandie Hoskins, a surprise third-round pick despite the common knowledge she would not be recovered from a torn Achilles tendon in time to play this season.
For the last four years, Foster’s team was built around the low-post game of Davenport, a 6-5 center who used that showcase to earn three straight Big Ten player of the year honors, and the perimeter playmaking of Hoskins, a 5-9 guard/forward.
To replace one of the best duos in school history, Foster seems likely to turn away from the back-to-the-basket dominance of Davenport in favor of a wide-open fast-break attack.
“We’re just really excited about it,” senior guard Marscilla Packer said of the new approach. “I think we’re going to be a completely different team than what you’ve seen the last few years. I think a lot more running.”
Why the switch from such a successful approach?
Simple: With an incoming freshman class that includes three of Scout.com’s 62 best players in the nation, Foster anticipates an influx of athleticism.
“You coach your team relative to your players strengths and weaknesses, and we’re more athletic than we have been with people that can score,” Foster said. “We’ve had some athletic players that maybe weren’t great shooters, per se, and they got their baskets off steals and deflections, etc.”
Foster saw his offense bog down last season after Hoskins was lost with 10 games to go because of her injury. Without the multitalented guard, Ohio State had to work hard to get the ball into Davenport and manufacture baskets against sagged in defenses.
This year the Buckeyes want to avoid such tactics, in part with the help of two athletic freshmen guards from Illinois and a highly decorated rookie center/forward from Ohio.
Of the guards, Brittany Johnson, rated No. 33 in the nation, finished her career as her state of Illinois’ all-time leading scorer while Alison Jackson, No. 62, won a state title at Oak Park Fenwick.
“I think Brittany’s very athletic and she’s going to get steals and deflections and she still found a way to score 4,000 points in high school, so hopefully it transfers into this level,” Foster said.
Both Johnson and Jackson said they are willing to do whatever they are asked to do to maintain the winning tradition Foster is restoring at Ohio State.
For Johnson, that might include running some point guard or showing off her outside shot.
“I know that in high school I scored 4,000 points but it doesn’t matter anymore because I’m in college now so I’m just going to have to show’em what I can do,” Johnson said.
Jackson said quickness and stamina are among her best attributes.
“I like to run. I came here to run. Coach Foster said we are going to run and I’m like, ‘Good,’ because I can handle halfcourt game but I’m looking to sprint every possession, fast-break layups – that’s the game I’m looking for,” Jackson said.
“If I can contribute playing defense, then I need to make that my responsibility,” she added. “If I need to make an outside shot, I’ll come in and contribute that too.”
While the Illinois natives look to strengthen the backcourt, the crown jewel of Foster’s recruiting class also said she brought her running shoes.
In fact, though Jantel Lavender – the nation’s No. 1 center and third-ranked prospect overall last year – is 6-4 and solidly built, she and her coach agreed she thrives in the running game.
“I think my strengths are basically posting up, footwork is good, I can shoot from 12 feet, and I just basically think running is a major part of a post player’s game because most post players are not as quick and fast as I run,” Lavender, the reigning Ohio Ms. Basketball after leading Cleveland Central Catholic to a state championship last season.
As far as replacing Davenport, Lavender can play in the post but brings a more versatile game.
That, along with Johnson, Jackson and the return of three starters – Packer, point guard Maria Moeller and forward Star Allen – from last season, have the Buckeyes feeling ready to prove there is not the talent dropoff some observers might expect.
“No, oh gosh, not at all,” two-year starter Packer said. “I think we’re going to be one of the best teams we’ve had since Coach Foster’s era here.”
Her hopes are buoyed by the close relationship the team has already started to build through open gyms and offseason workouts.
“I honestly say that because I believe this is one of my favorite years so far, and we haven’t even gotten started yet,” Packer said.