Tayler Hill and her Ohio State teammates knew exactly what everyone was thinking. Without Jantel Lavender or Jessica Davenport, the dominant post players who had led them to six Big Ten titles in the past seven years, the Buckeyes finally would be vulnerable this season.
Hill wasn't surprised when Ohio State failed to make the top three in the Big Ten's preseason coaches and media polls. Still, the former Minneapolis South star believed her team was primed to spoil those predictions -- and she planned to play a leading role. The No. 9 Buckeyes will look different in Sunday's game against the Gophers at Williams Arena, with Hill, the Big Ten's top scorer, among the guards directing a more up-tempo offense. The results remain much the same, as they hold the league's best overall record at 20-1.
After blossoming as a fine defender last season, Hill has nearly doubled her scoring output this year. The junior is averaging 21.4 points per game, ranking her 10th in NCAA Division I. She and point guard Samantha Prahalis make a potent pairing, heading an Ohio State offense that tops the Big Ten with 78.5 points per game.
"Everyone thought because Jantel left, we wouldn't be any good," Hill said. "We weren't in any of the discussion before the season, which was fine with us. It just gave us motivation.
"We had the mindset of knowing people thought we were underdogs, and we were going to work extremely hard. Everyone came in open-minded and ready to learn. And we haven't reached our peak yet."
Lavender, a three-time All-America who is Ohio State's career leader in points and rebounds, was among three key players who finished their time in Columbus last spring. She and Davenport ruled the low post for eight consecutive seasons, cementing the Buckeyes' identity as a team that generated much of its offense inside.
While others focused on the gaping hole left by their absence, coach Jim Foster looked at his veteran guards and saw a chance to set a new path. He envisioned the Buckeyes using a fierce defense to create offense, with players who could score in a multitude of ways. Hill, always known for her ability to get to the hoop, had added a pullup jumper and improved her long-range shooting.
With the youngest roster in the Big Ten, Ohio State began the season unranked. Hill and Prahalis took charge of a close-knit group and seamlessly implemented the new style. They have combined to score 40 points per game, half the average output for a team that shoots a league-best 48 percent from the field.
"[Hill] and Prahalis know if they don't play well, they don't win," Gophers coach Pam Borton said. "They've performed well in every single game. Tayler has kind of grown into that role. There's not anything she can't do right now."
Though Hill admitted the transition to the college game was difficult, she is proud of how she has polished and expanded her skills. She made the Big Ten's all-defensive team last year as she averaged 12.4 points per game. This season, she remains one of the league's toughest defenders while becoming one of its best three-point shooters, with a league-high 56 shots made from beyond the arc.
Hill is having more fun than ever, but not because of her statistics. She's found deep satisfaction in defying the expectations others had for the Buckeyes, as part of a team that still expects only the best from itself.
"Everyone doubted us,'' she said. "But we have great team chemistry, and because our frontcourt is so young, we still have a lot of room to grow. I'm excited to see how we continue to develop throughout the season.''