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Ohio State counting on Jacy Sheldon’s return as slide continues

Jacy Sheldon returned from a foot injury on Feb. 5 but then was sidelined again. (Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

After two months of anticipation, Ohio State announced the return of their star guard on Feb. 5 with a simple tweet: “Jacy Sheldon is available for today’s game at Maryland.”

Sheldon played four games to start the season before being sidelined with a lower leg injury. The details of the injury weren’t made public, but Sheldon was seen wearing a walking boot on the sidelines during several of her team’s games.

Prior to the injury, Sheldon was averaging 16.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. In her last appearance before being sidelined, Sheldon dropped 22 points to lead her team to victory over then-No. 18 Louisville.

Sheldon’s absence raised concerns for the Buckeyes, but against all odds they opened their season at 18-0 and crept up to No. 2 in the AP Poll. Ohio State even managed to maintain its unblemished record when Madison Greene suffered a season-ending ACL injury. But eventually, the injuries and fatigue caught up with the Buckeyes, who dropped three games in a row to Iowa, Indiana and Purdue in the final week of January.

Sheldon’s return seemed to come at the perfect time when the Buckeyes took on No. 8 Maryland on the road on Feb. 5. But the senior clearly wasn’t 100 percent, finishing with just five points in a 90-54 loss that Maryland controlled from start to finish.

Worse than the blowout loss was the fact that Sheldon was sidelined once more. After missing 20 games, she went back to street clothes for the Buckeyes’ next two contests — a win over Minnesota on Feb. 8 and a blowout 83-59 loss to Indiana on Monday.

“Nothing has changed,” coach Kevin McGuff told reporters following the win over Minnesota. “She still feels fine there, but just in terms of just getting her whole body back and going, we’re still sort of in management mode. We did have her practice a little bit. We’re still sort of just picking and choosing, making decisions how much to bring back right now.”

Forward Rebeka Mikulasikova sustained an ankle injury during the Minnesota game and was also absent for Ohio State’s loss to Indiana. It’s likely a high ankle sprain, according to McGuff. The Buckeyes haven’t given a timeline for her return, but high ankle sprains typically take twice as long to heal as low ankle sprains since ligaments are involved.

The Buckeyes have three regular-season games remaining against Penn State, No. 12 Michigan and No. 8 Maryland. Then comes the NCAA Tournament. For Ohio State to make a deep run in March, they will need Sheldon and Mikulasikova on the court. McGuff hasn’t specified a target date for their return, but keeping the two out for regular season games in anticipation of March Madness appears to be a smart move for the depleted squad.

Since they’ve lost five of their last seven games, Ohio State’s projected seeding has changed dramatically (from a potential No. 1 seed to a 4 or 5). More losses could mean an even lower seed. But the trade-off to having a healthy team in March might warrant the current drop.

The Buckeyes won’t get Greene back, but with both Sheldon and Mikulasikova on the court, the team looks dramatically different. On offense, Sheldon runs the point and is able to create off the bounce, which opens up both post players and shooters, like Taylor Mikesell, the team’s top scorer at 17.8 points per game.

At 6-4, Mikulasikova is the team’s only player over 6-foot who plays significant minutes. Without her, the Buckeyes are undersized. Offensively, she can also free up the paint by extending defenses with the ability to shoot 3-pointers, hitting from deep at a 35.2 percent clip.

Between the two, Ohio State is missing 26.6 points per game (32.3 percent of their total scoring).

In their absence, The Buckeyes have seen the development of freshman forward Cotie McMahon, a bright spot in the injury-riddled season. McMahon is averaging 14 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.6 blocks per game. Against Minnesota, she scored 25 points — her second-highest mark this season — and she held her own against Indiana on Monday, with 22 points, six rebounds and three assists.

If Ohio State can get both Sheldon and Mikulasikova back, McMahon’s increased confidence will only help the Buckeyes. That’s the best-case scenario for this team heading into the postseason.

“Every season has inevitable highs and lows,” McGuff said earlier this month after the three-game losing streak. “Some are maybe not as extreme as 19-0 and three losses in a row, but they all have their highs and lows. If we can push ourselves to being the team that got us to 19-0 and then infuse Jacy back at the right time, then hopefully, we can be on an upswing down the stretch and peak heading into March.”