COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Former players frequently visit Ohio State in the summer to chat with their old coaches and occasionally play a pickup game with ex-teammates and underclassmen.

It meant something more when Katie Smith scrimmaged with the current Ohio State Buckeyes this summer, then offered a few opinions to coach Jim Foster. That’s not a bad scouting service, considering Smith won three Olympic gold medals and is the all-time leading scorer in American women’s professional basketball.

“Katie Smith doesn’t pull punches,” Foster said. “She said they (the Buckeyes) played harder. And that’s coming from someone who doesn’t know any other way.”

He smiled as he added, “That’s like Pavarotti saying, ‘They can sing.”

Who can blame Foster for smiling?

His 18th-ranked squad has won at least a share of the last four Big Ten titles, and he’s had the conference’s player of the year in each of those seasons. The Buckeyes have won 109 games during that span and — here’s the best part — star center Jantel Lavender is just a sophomore and is surrounded by fast, smart and talented players.

The 6-foot-4 Lavender averaged 17.6 points and a league-best 9.9 rebounds last season while Ohio State went 22-9 and 13-5 in the conference. She was the No. 2 freshman scorer in the country and had 13 double-doubles — including one memorable game at Penn State in which she went for 36 points and 16 rebounds with six assists.

Many thought the Buckeyes would have difficulty replacing Jessica Davenport, a three-time All-American, who graduated just before Lavender’s debut season. Instead, Lavender succeeded her as the first freshman — male or female — to become the Big Ten’s player of the year.

“That’s a great honor,” she said. “But it’s something I have to live up to in the years that follow.”

The Buckeyes are far more than just Lavender. Matter of fact, they’re loaded — returning 70 percent of their scoring from last season while adding a few new components.

Point guard Shavelle Little was the conference’s defensive player of the year. Ashlee Trebilcock is a 3-point threat from anywhere inside midcourt. Burly power forward Star Allen returns after sitting out the second half of last season due to academics.

The Buckeyes want to get out and run. That includes Lavender, who’s as mobile for her size as anyone in the college game.

“It reminds me more of a street-ball kind of a game,” Little said of their style of play.

To those four returning starters, Foster welcomes back slasher/scorer Brittany Johnson, guards Maria Moeller and Alison Jackson and backup center Andrea Walker, who would be a standout on a lot of other teams if she wasn’t stuck behind Lavender.

Foster also brought in two acclaimed freshmen. Samantha Prahalis is a lightning-quick point guard from Long Island who was a McDonald’s All-American. She is expected to add some pizazz to the fastbreak and toughness to the team. Amber Stokes, daughter of former Ohio State standout Ron Stokes, will add depth at guard after she returns from an injury.

Don’t be surprised if the petite, tattooed Prahalis makes herself at home.

“It’s definitely a good experience. I feel like I’ve jelled with the girls offensively,” she said. “Especially me and Jantel. We have a special chemistry on the court. … I’ve never played with a big girl as good as her.”

Not everything is positive for the Buckeyes, however. Despite all the wins and league championships, they have been downright dreadful when they get to the NCAA tournament, repeatedly getting upset early.

The last three years, the Buckeyes have fallen in either the first or second round to teams seeded at least five spots lower. A year ago, they were a sixth seed and lost 60-49 to 11th-seeded Florida State. A year before, they were a No. 4 seed and lost 67-63 to No. 13 Marist in the first game. The year before, they were a top seed and lost 79-69 to eighth-seeded Boston College in the second round.

Foster doesn’t offer much in the way of excuses, although he hints that Ohio State overachieved during the regular season.

“We needed to get more athletic, and last year was sort of a transition year, yet we made the NCAA tournament and won the Big Ten,” he said. “We’ve got to get good enough and athletic enough to win at the next step. And I think we have.”

Lavender said it’s time for the early exits to end.

“We can go way farther than we did last year,” she said. “This year we expect to at least make it to the Elite Eight and then take it from there.”

If they don’t go deeper in the tournament, they — and Foster — will owe Katie Smith an explanation.