Ohio State can win the NCAA title if: Marscilla Packer continues opening the floor for Jessica Davenport
After early-season losses to LSU and Purdue, the Buckeyes raced through their next 19 games without a setback. Jim Foster's team won the Big Ten regular-season crown and then avenged the earlier loss to the Boilermakers by beating them in the final of the Big Ten Tournament.
But for a team which gave itself plenty of breathing room in the conference, population density on the court might ultimately hold the key for Ohio State's national championship aspirations.
All-American center Jessica Davenport and guard Brandie Hoskins are Ohio State's leading scorers, but they've combined for just 11 3-pointers this season. Both of them do their work inside the arc, Davenport setting up as an immovable object on the blocks and Hoskins cutting to the basket or hitting the mid-range jumper. Both are extremely good at what they do, which is why the paint often looked like a Tokyo subway at rush hour during Ohio State's early games. The Buckeyes were good enough to win most of those games anyway, but they weren't going to compete for a title if Davenport and Hoskins had to work that hard against teams like Boston College and USC.
With outside threat Caity Matter gone from last year's team, the Buckeyes struggled to get their offense rolling in the few quality nonconference games they played. That lack of cohesion was never more apparent than when they scored just 48 points on their home court in an embarrassing loss to LSU on national television on Dec. 15.
Enter Marscilla Packer. A sophomore guard who played very limited minutes as a freshman, Packer was thrown in the deep end this season as Matter's replacement. She was able to tread water right away, saving the Buckeyes with a big shooting day against Boston College in an early game, but it wasn't until after the LSU contest that she began to turn laps like Michael Phelps.
In 16 conference games, Packer shot 49.5 percent from behind the arc on a high volume of shots, connecting on nearly three triples a game. In 30 games so far this season, she has already hit more 3-pointers (76) than Matter did in 35 games last season (73). That outside accuracy, combined with the return of veteran point guard Ashley Allen (3.8 assists per game), makes life considerably less crowded for both Davenport and Hoskins.
The change has been especially noticeable for Davenport -- and there is little about the 6-foot-4 center that isn't noticeable on the court. In nonconference play, Davenport shot 58 percent and averaged 16.5 points -- good numbers for most mortals but not the numbers most expected from the reigning Big Ten player of the year. But in conference play, with Packer draining shots from outside, Davenport shot 66.2 percent and averaged 20.4 points.
If Ohio State is going to win a title, Davenport might carry the Buckeyes to the peak. But in order to do that, Packer needs to make sure the big center isn't carrying three or four defenders on the climb.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.