Two months into her freshman season with Ohio State, Kelsey Mitchell is deep into the process of rewriting the 50-year-old program’s record for wunderkinds.
She leads the Big Ten in scoring at 25.9 points per game and reset the OSU record for points in a game by a freshman with 39 against West Virginia on Monday.
Mitchell is so good that coach Kevin McGuff and junior teammate Ameryst Alston, herself an all-conference guard last season as a sophomore, don’t like to use the “frosh” word when referring to her.
This promotion would seem reasonable to anyone who has seen her play, with one notable exception: Kelsey Mitchell.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I feel like I have a lot of childish ways on the court. My IQ level is not as high as it needs to be, especially playing with someone like Am. She has a high IQ for the game. I’ve got to work my way up to that because I’m not there yet.”
Mitchell, the daughter of two coaches and twin sister of Chelsea, an injured OSU teammate, is in no hurry to seem older. She only wants to study the game and get better.
“Am’s IQ is there, as far as keeping her head on a swivel,” Mitchell said. “Defensively, it’s keep your hands off. It’s just the little things. But the small stuff always matters.”
— Kevin McGuff
Alston respected Mitchell enough to cede point guard duties to her at the outset of the season.
“We don’t look at Kelsey like she’s a freshman out on the floor,” Alston said. “She is smart enough and she has earned her stripes to give the right direction to the rest of us.
“We don’t point out classes. We’re all out there on the floor. We all have the same goals. She’s a great player, and she doesn’t play like a freshman. I mean, she has freshman moments, but we all do.”
Five players in the history of the program have topped 2,000 points in their careers: Jantel Lavender (2,818); Katie Smith (2,578); Jessica Davenport (2,303); Tayler Hill (2,015) and Samantha Prahalis (2,010). All became starters as freshmen.
A 5-foot-11 guard, Smith ended her career as the leading scorer in Big Ten history. As a freshman in 1992-93, she immediately became an integral part of the only Buckeyes team to reach the NCAA tournament championship game. She averaged 17.8 points and set the program freshman record of 588 points.
Mitchell joined an OSU team in November with only two returning starters: Alston and junior guard Cait Craft. The dynamics for Smith were different.
“We had a bunch of talented seniors,” Smith said. “I had Averill [Roberts] and Nikki Keyton. They were all-Big Ten players. You want to fit in and be one of the pieces. But I don’t think you want to look like you’re a freshman. You are a basketball player first. I came to compete. I came to play hard, to grow and to learn.”
In McGuff’s mind, Mitchell brought the same attitude to OSU.
“This is a kid who is really good because she has always thought about how she can get better,” he said. “It’s why she’s gotten to this point. So that’s what will always drive her to make progress and get better.
“It is a different dynamic [than with Smith] because we need Kelsey more, but she is really special, too. Her will to win and her will to get better are through the roof. I think ultimately that’s what is going to allow her to be really special.”
People outside the OSU program already think Mitchell is special. Hall of Fame Georgia coach Andy Landers wasn’t surprised to see her score 26 points in a 67-59 loss to the Bulldogs.
“I recruited her,” he said. “I didn’t get very far. But there is no question if we played her 20 times, I would expect her to be terrific 20 times.
“Is it realistic if she played for me to believe that she is going to go 20 for 20? No. But she can. That first game, she could get 40. And if she doesn’t, that second game she could get 40 or 35. That’s just who she is.”
For that reason, McGuff will continue to see Mitchell as more than a freshman.
“I’m asking a lot of Kelsey, but Kelsey wants a lot to be asked of her,” he said. “So she embraces that. We need her. She knows that.”