Kelsey Mitchell leaned in closer, and only got more confused. Who was this other Kelsey her Ohio State coaches were talking about at practice, a left-handed guard who could score in bunches? Who was Kelsey Plum?
“Honestly, I had never heard of her,” says Mitchell, a freshman at Ohio State who leads the nation in scoring at 25.9 points per game. “But I heard she’s fearless, and that we’re alike. I need to watch her play. I could probably learn something.”
The Kelseys have dominated women’s college basketball this season, two dynamic scorers who have become the faces of programs on the rise. Washington sophomore Kelsey Plum averages 24.5 points a game, third best in the country (Iona’s Damika Martinez sits between them at 25.1.) The Kelseys are similar: Same name, same dominant hand, same offense, recruited by the same head coach. Each plays with a veteran sidekick willing to let the young kid shine. Both have made headlines helping upset ranked teams: Plum scored 32 in Washington’s 70-49 shocker over then-No. 5 Texas A&M on Dec. 29, and Mitchell put up 33 when Ohio State routed then-No. 16 Rutgers 85-68 on Jan. 1.
They’re different, too. Plum is a driver who can shoot; Mitchell is a shooter who can drive. Mitchell shoots more threes (195 attempts to Plum’s 98), and Plum has more of a midrange game. Mitchell is the primary ballhandler for the Buckeyes, and Plum plays mostly 2-guard. And as they push their teams into the national spotlight -- both Ohio State and Washington have received Top 25 votes this year -- they bring an intangible many critics say women’s basketball lacks.
“We don’t dunk,” says Washington coach Mike Neighbors. “And people think that means we’re not entertaining. But go watch Kelsey (Plum) score 45 against Oklahoma and tell me it’s not exciting.
“The reason I love women’s basketball is because it’s the [type of basketball] I played. I couldn’t dunk at will; maybe if you gave me a running start and some Stickum. The game I love is about screening and action and pacing and beautiful backdoor cuts. These kids help create interest in our game.”
Those who lament low scoring in men’s college hoops would appreciate the Buckeyes and Huskies: Ohio State and Washington are eighth and ninth in scoring in the country, checking in at 81.1 and 79.1 points per game, respectively.
Kevin McGuff, who signed Plum while coaching at Washington from 2011-13 before moving to Ohio State and snagging Mitchell, says recruiting both of them was just a coincidence.
“Boy, do I have an eye for talent,” McGuff jokes. “Seriously though -- you’d have to be a complete moron to not see it. Watch them for five minutes and you say, ‘Wow, that kid is really special.’”
McGuff inherited a talented scorer at Washington in now-senior Jazmine Davis, a pint-sized point guard who can create shots and tempo. But the Huskies were thin on frontline players, which led McGuff and Neighbors, his lead assistant at the time, to study and implement the dribble drive. As Washington started to climb back into the top half of the Pac-12, McGuff and Neighbors went looking for a sidekick to Davis. They found it in Plum, a 5-8 guard from Poway, Calif., who put up big numbers on the AAU circuit. They liked her for her scoring, and loved her for everything else: Leadership, poise and the type of personality and charisma that draws in other players. Courted by virtually every West Coast school, the five-star prospect narrowed her list to Washington, Cal and Gonzaga before choosing the Huskies, a decision that Neighbors believes has lasting implications.
“Plum is one of those example-setters that other kids want to come play with,” Neighbors says. “She made it OK to go to UW.”
Disappointed he never got to coach Plum, McGuff set off to find her equivalent at Ohio State. McGuff, who had previously coached at Xavier, had first seen Mitchell in the seventh grade. A five-star recruit and the nation’s No. 1 point guard in the class of 2014, Mitchell was on everyone’s wish list. When he was at Washington, McGuff figured Mitchell wouldn’t have traveled 1,900 miles to play college basketball, especially because there were so many good options in her backyard. But the Ohio State brand makes it easy to get into any living room, and Mitchell liked the idea of playing in a system she already knew.
While Mitchell committed to Ohio State, Plum started to torch Pac-12 defenses. She set the Pac-12 freshman single-season record for points, with 712 (20.9 ppg) and was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year. The one-two punch of Plum and Davis (39.7 combined points per game, the second-best scoring backcourt in the country) carried the Huskies to the WNIT quarterfinals, where they fell to UTEP.
Mitchell finds herself in a similar situation at Ohio State with junior guard Ameryst Alston, who averages 20.8 points per game. During the recruitment process, McGuff and Neighbors told their veteran guards bringing in a young scorer would mean better shots for everyone.
Neither Kelsey is resting on her early success. In the summer, Plum worked at making her game more efficient. Neighbors told her to think about attacking once and kicking out, instead of attacking, getting stopped and going right back at a defender. It has worked: Her assists are up, turnovers are down and she’s increased her field goal percentage by seven points (46 percent, up from 39 percent). She’s turned in big games against Oklahoma (45 points) and Oregon (35).
“There’s a different type of responsibility when you’re playing a lot of minutes,” Plum says. “As a freshman, you’re hitting your head against the wall hoping it breaks. Now, I’m like, ‘Hey, maybe we can climb OVER the wall instead of trying to run through it.’ For my team to be successful with me as a scorer, I have to help get the best shot -- and sometimes that means I need to pass it.”
From across the country, McGuff has admired Plum’s play -- he and Neighbors talk multiple times per week, trading “Hey-this-play-helped-Kelsey-score” advice -- while helping Mitchell adjust to the college game.
While most freshmen learn to increase their motor at collegiate level, Mitchell is trying to slow hers. She says she has a tendency to go too fast and lose sight of the whole floor, though McGuff doesn’t completely agree. “She reminds me of John Wall,” he says. “You know when he as at Kentucky, how he would go so fast, but still be able to create for himself and his teammates? That’s her.”
Plum, meanwhile, draws comparisons to Jackie Stiles, the former Missouri State guard who still holds the NCAA record for most points in a single season (1,062 in 2000-01) and is considered the best pure scorer in the modern era of women’s basketball.
“It’s cool that they’re so young, and it’s great for our game,” Neighbors says. “People are going to keep seeing them -- and it’s cool that they’re at places that aren’t traditional Top 5 or Top 10 schools.”
Now, they just need to meet each other.