This article originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Kelsey Mitchell is 21 years old and has yet to find anyone who can keep up with her. A 5' 8" point guard at Ohio State, Mitchell, a junior, is the top returning scorer in the nation after averaging 26.1 points on 45.2% shooting last season. There’s no secret to her game, just lots of sprinting. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anybody as fast who can bring the ball with them,” Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff says. “The trick is making sure the rest of our team is running as fast as she’s pushing the ball.”
Growing up in Cincinnati, Mitchell was the one trying to keep up. She wanted nothing more than to tag along to basketball games with her twin brothers, Cameron and Kevin, who are four years older. She would talk her way onto the court, and make tough shots against much older, bigger boys. Once she started playing in her own age group, she was far ahead of the competition.
“The hardest part about playing with girls is that sometimes I can’t slow down,” Mitchell says. “I get going so fast I can’t make the right play, or I get a charge. I turn the ball over too much because I’m playing so fast.”
Not that McGuff is suggesting Mitchell slow down. The Buckeyes, SI’s preseason No. 5, averaged 86.0 points per game last season, third in the nation behind defending champion Connecticut and Sacramento State. Like Washington, Ohio State runs the dribble drive, an attacking offensive scheme perfectly suited to Mitchell because it creates space for ballhandlers. “When she first got here it was just, ‘Ready, go!’” McGuff says. “Now she’s really starting to read defenses and understand what’s in front of her. She’d be good in any system because she’s a great player, but she’s great in our system because we emphasize tempo so much.”
Mitchell isn’t the Buckeyes’ only scorer. Junior forward Alexa Hart (10.8 points and 7.8 boards in 2015–16) is back, and the team will get a boost from transfers Stephanie Mavunga (14.4 points and 9.6 rebounds at North Carolina in ‘14–15), a forward, and guard Sierra Calhoun (10.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists at Duke in ‘14–15). Help from another proven scorer will arrive after Christmas, when guard Linnae Harper (11.5 points, 7.1 rebounds in ‘14–15) becomes eligible after transferring from Kentucky.
The coach at Xavier from 2002 to ‘11, McGuff heard about Mitchell when she was in junior high, holding her own against college players in open gyms around Cincinnati. To figure out how to excel against bigger, more experienced players, Mitchell would study highlight reels of 6-foot Allen Iverson and Baltimore high school star Aquille Carr, a 5' 7" guard who skipped college to play pro overseas in 2013. “YouTube is my best friend,” Mitchell says. “I watched them, how small and fast they were, their craftiness with the ball. They made unorthodox or impossible passes possible.”
After McGuff took the Ohio State job in 2013 (following two seasons at Washington), recruiting Mitchell from Princeton High became his top priority. He brought Mitchell’s father, Mark, a longtime high school and AAU coach, on staff starting in ‘13–14, then signed Kelsey and her twin sister, Chelsea (a redshirt sophomore), in his first recruiting class.
Mitchell adopted a playground mentality her first season, trying to score as fast as possible. As a freshman she set 29 single-season or single-game OSU records, then broke or tied most of them as a sophomore, including the single-season scoring record (889 points). She reached 1,000 points faster than any player in Big Ten history. Her strength is racing opponents to the rim, but she’s comfortable launching the ball from deep behind the three-point line too. Mitchell says there’s no limit to her range because, inspired by Steph Curry, she believes that scoring is more about muscle memory and confidence than how far you are from the basket. Says Washington’s Kelsey Plum, “I think I have no conscience, but that girl seriously has no conscience.”
Mitchell’s play draws praise from coaches and other players from around the country. Maryland coach Brenda Frese says the buzz surrounding Mitchell has helped Big Ten women’s basketball grow—people tune in to her games to see what all the fuss is about. Frese has been trying to slow down Mitchell for the last two years, but has yet to succeed. “We don’t have any scout team that can simulate her speed,” Frese says. “Our kids were joking one day about how they ‘held’ her to 33 points. She’s really hard to prepare for because you have to defend all three levels: She can shoot the three, pull up and get to the rim. Plus she has the ability to change speeds, and she’s supremely confident.” Plum checks Ohio State’s TV schedule every week to make sure she watches Mitchell as often as possible. Mitchell’s change of direction is what Plum most wishes she could replicate.
Mitchell’s fan club extends beyond women’s basketball. Former Ohio State hoops standout D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, called her “unguardable.” Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett, a Heisman contender, backs up Russell’s claim, raving to local reporters about Mitchell’s mind-set when she plays pickup with football players in the off-season. Upon hearing this, Mitchell giggles, then laments that she never had the opportunity to go one-on-one against former Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft, one of the best defenders of the last decade. She’s curious to know if, unlike so many other players who have tried and failed, he could slow her down.