Focusing on post players when examining the Ohio State women’s basketball team is an easy and natural practice.
After all, when freshman Jantel Lavender was named Big Ten player of the year earlier this week by the conference coaches, she was just continuing a tradition started three years ago by Jessica Davenport, who won the same honor from 2005-07.
But the way the Buckeyes tell it, the key to their success could well be the other of their teammates to take home a conference-wide award this week.
Meet sophomore point guard Shavelle Little, the Big Ten defensive player of the year and the head of the OSU defense.
“I think she sparks everybody on defense,” Lavender said yesterday. “Once everybody sees her getting steals, it excites us and gives us an energy level that we should be at.”
Thievery is indeed Little’s specialty – witness her conference-leading average of 3.06 steals per game in conference play – but her impact on the team goes beyond just taking the ball away from opponents.
Little, who started 26 of the team’s 29 games this season but split time with classmate Maria Moeller at point guard, gives the Buckeyes a different identity at the defensive end when she is on the floor.
That was the case on opening night, when Marist coach Brian Giorgis told reporters anyone scouting his team's loss at Ohio State would not have learned much because Little did not allow them to run their offensive sets, and often is when Ohio State wins.
“I think for me that’s where it has to be to get us started,” Little said. “I definitely have to get started on the defensive end. That’s how I get going and how a lot of our points get going.”
However, as a young player, Little has gone through some ups and downs, some mental and some physical. More than once this season head coach Jim Foster sat her for long stretches of a game after he was dissatisfied with her defensive intensity, and she missed two games and played limited minutes in several others because of a lingering knee injury that does not figure to heal before the beginning of postseason play Friday night at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
The Buckeyes have been able to win without her, but the psychological effect of having Little on the floor makes them a more dangerous team.
“When you get a steal it pumps everybody else up on the team,” Lavender said. “If she is picking their point guard at halfcourt and getting layups, you can’t help but get excited because the lead is slowly extending.”
Fellow starting guard Ashlee Trebilcock seconded Lavender’s comments.
“When she is playing defense and getting picks and you can see them hardly getting past halfcourt and getting frustrated, it’s kind of like a big momentum changer for everyone else on the team,” Trebilcock said.
The effect is enough that Trebilcock and Marscilla Packer, Ohio State’s third starting guard, can sense the frustration from the players they are guarding when Little is making life difficult for the opposing point guard.
The physical secret to her success is long arms and quick hands, mitts Trebilcock called “giant”.
Foster quipped that Little’s reach would make her a tough matchup in the boxing ring, as long as she could take a punch.
“She’d be the light heavyweight champion,” he said. “She might have a glass jaw, though. We don’t know that. She’d have the best jab in town, though.”
But back to basketball, Little credited good instincts, too.
“You have to read it,” she explained about picking an opponent’s pocket.
Taking a ferocious mindset into every game is key as well, a fact that is true both of Little and her team.
The Buckeyes have been far better defensively at home than they have on the road this season, a fact attributable to their overall youth.
Of course, Little, who backed up Moeller a year ago, is young, too.
Foster and his players both agreed the difference for the team’s defense on the road is mostly mental, but that Little’s availability has an effect as well.
“The defensive player of the year, she missed at Northwestern,” Foster said. “She missed at Minnesota. She played nine minutes at Penn State. Your numbers can get skewed very quickly.”
But attributing Little’s presence or lack thereof to how well the team plays defensively is an oversimplification.
“I think it’s more about the attitude that we bring to the table,” he said. “I’m not sure how many minutes she played against Illinois here and they got 42. I know she was on the floor (in a loss) at Illinois and they got 66. It might start with pressure on the ball but the other things have to fit into place. The other people have to accept the challenge.”
When Little is there to kickstart the attack, though, accepting that challenge becomes that much easier.
“I think we can still win a lot of games with not as much (me), but I think it helps a lot,” Little said.