COLUMBUS, Ohio – For each of the last eight years, Ohio State has had the Big Ten's best player.
Now, it's up to Tayler Hill to extend the streak.
Samantha Prahalis won the conference player of the year award a year ago, following a tradition starting with Jessica Davenport (2005-2007) and Jantel Lavender (2008-11).
Hill, who led the Big Ten in scoring last year at 20.7 points a game, says she's never been on an Ohio State team that was closer heading into a season.
"It's not a fake thing," she said. "We really get along, we really care about each other, on and off the floor. It's probably my first year I can say that about everybody on the team."
Hill, defensive whiz Amber Stokes and post Ashley Adams provide a solid core for coach Jim Foster's Buckeyes, who open the season on Friday night on the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., against Notre Dame.
Stokes, the conference's defensive player of the year, also has marveled at how the Buckeyes have come together.
"The ball's moving, people are getting a lot of good looks, their shots are looking good," she said. "It's there. We've got it."
Prahalis graduated to the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, taking with her a flamboyant but often erratic game. She could inspire the team with a sensational behind-the-back pass for a bucket in transition, then hurt the Buckeyes by getting into a funk after an early foul and squabbling with the officials.
The Buckeyes also must do without forward Kalpana Beach, who started 30 times last year. She tore the ACL in her right knee in October and will miss the season.
"It'll be a little bit different team," said Foster, who has won at least 20 games in each of the last 10 seasons at Ohio State while lifting his career record to 765-294 (.722) heading into his 35th season as a college head coach. "Defensively I think we're going to be much improved. I just think we got a got great foundation. Collectively, we're better defensively."
It all starts with Hill, an athletic guard who can bring the ball up, lead the fast break, rebound, post low, shoot the 3 or force a turnover.
"I think Tayler's going to be a first-round (WNBA) pick," Foster said.
She averaged 20.4 points a game last season — a remarkable 10-points a game improvement over her sophomore season.
Hill is humbled to be a part of the opener. Her mother served in the Navy in the Philippines, but Hill has never seen a warship.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a privilege," she said. "Out of all the Division I schools, it's the first year for women's basketball to be a part of this, and they picked us to play."
Foster, a Vietnam veteran, and his club will face an elite team in Notre Dame at the Carrier Classic. The Irish have lost in the national championship game each of the past two seasons. Irish coach Muffet McGraw is a former assistant under Foster at her alma mater, Saint Joseph's.
Foster's team offers him a lot of options at nearly every position.
Stokes and Hill might be the best defensive combination in the country, Adams blocked 96 shots — three per game — a year ago, and almost everybody else likes to run and play sticky defense.
Darryce Moore, Raven Ferguson, Martina Ellerbe, Emilee Harmon and Maleeka Kynard were the top subs a year ago and likely to see substantial playing time.
In addition, Foster brought in two-time Ohio Ms. Basketball Ameryst Alston, 6-foot-6 center Lisa Blair and Caite Craft in a glittering recruiting class. Craft is the younger sister of Buckeyes men's basketball standout Aaron Craft. The men are also playing in the Carrier Classic, taking on Marquette in the nightcap on the windy deck of the Yorktown.
Expectations are high.
"It started with the coaches. They came in with a different mindset. If you weren't ready to play, they were kicking us out (of practice)," Hill said. "There was no leeway. And that set the table for us."
Foster has been around a lot of promising teams, also at Vanderbilt, and now for 11 seasons with the Buckeyes. With one offensive star, several defensive standouts and a roster full of willing participants, he's happy with the hand he's been dealt.
"I always say, 'Give me two weeks and I'll have a feel for where we are,'" he said.
Then, after hesitating and carefully parsing his words, he added, "I like this group."
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