Separated by slightly more than 100 miles, Ohio State and Cincinnati might be geographic acquaintances, but they’ve never been mistaken for friendly neighbors, at least when it comes to their basketball programs.
There’s a history between the two, going back to two games played half a century ago. Sweet or bitter, depending on which side you pull for. And because of what happened way back when - plus a few other reasons - there haven’t been many basketball games since then pitting the Bearcats against the Buckeyes. Just one, to be precise.
Which makes Thursday night’s NCAA Tournament game at TD Garden quite a notable occasion. Cincinnati (26-10), the No. 6 seed in the East Regional, meets second-seeded Ohio State (29-7) in the night’s second game, following Syracuse-Wisconsin. Tip time is estimated to be 9:45 p.m., with the winner advancing to the Elite Eight on Saturday.
It took action by the state legislature to finally get Kentucky and Louisville to meet on a yearly basis, a game that has been enthusiastically received in the basketball-mad Bluegrass State. Barring a similar move in Ohio, it’ll likely take some bracketing magic by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, such as this year, to ever get Ohio State and Cincinnati on the same floor.
“I doubt it,’’ Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said, when asked about a series with Cincinnati. “It’s probably highly unlikely.’’
“I don’t know if I can give you a great answer exactly why we don’t play,’’ Matta said. “I know as we put together our schedule every year, with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, they’re talking about playing a Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge, we’ve got a ton of them. It’s one of those things that it is what it is.’’
For years, Cincinnati was interested in playing the Buckeyes, but requests for games were regularly rejected when the invitation reached Columbus.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who has lobbied to play Ohio State, said the focus now is on advancing in the tournament, not on the opponent or any historical factors.
“For the fans, it’s different,’’ Cronin said. “For us, it’s the next team on our schedule. We’re trying to win four more games and bring a championship back to Cincinnati. The fact that we’re playing Ohio State is a sidebar. We don’t have time to worry about it or talk about it. We’ve got bigger fish to fry, and we need to stay focused on things that matter.’’
Some feel there’s lingering resentment at Ohio State about the back-to-back meetings the two schools had in national championship games, both won by the Bearcats.
In fact, Saturday marks the 50-year anniversary of the last time Cincinnati and Ohio State met in an NCAA Tournament game. The Bearcats beat the Buckeyes, 71-59, on March 24, 1962, part of a run that included five straight trips to the Final Four and three consecutive appearances in the title game. A year earlier, playing for the 1961 NCAA title, Cincinnati handed the top-ranked Buckeyes their only defeat, 70-65, in overtime. They remain Cincinnati’s only two national championships in basketball. Ohio State has made nine trips to the Final Four; its lone championship came in 1960.
Jerry Lucas scored 27 points in the ’61 title game, with future Celtic John Havlicek adding 4. An unheralded reserve scored 2 points that day for the Buckeyes, but Bobby Knight would impact college basketball soon enough.
Resentment? Another Ohio State starter on that 1961 team, Larry Siegfried, was selected third overall in the 1961 NBA draft a week after the NCAA championship game, but refused to sign with the team that picked him, because the sting of losing his final college game and taking his talents to a certain city were too painful. So he spurned the Cincinnati Royals, joined the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League for a year, then made his way to Boston in 1963, helping the Celtics win five NBA titles over the next six seasons.
When asked over the years about scheduling Cincinnati, Matta has said that Ohio State prefers to play its marquee non-conference games against out-of-state teams, which only gives fuel to those who feel the Buckeyes won’t agree to play a team from Ohio if they suspect they’ll be in for a tight game. In addition to their lack of a series history with Cincinnati, the Buckeyes don’t play Dayton or Xavier, with the only games over the past 20 years against either of those schools coming in the postseason.
“I think people are thrilled that it’s happening now, especially with what’s at stake in this one,’’ said Paul Keels, who owns an interesting perspective on Cincinnati-Ohio State: he was the radio play-by-play voice of the Bearcats for seven years, and has called Buckeyes games for the past 14. “It’s Ohio State’s choice, they don’t want to schedule the game.’’
From the Buckeyes’ position, why would they? Matta has taken his team to six of the past seven NCAA Tournaments, reaching the 2007 championship game. Losing to an in-state team could have negative implications, and the last thing Ohio State wants is the appearance it is anything but the top dog in its own state.
With the help of CBS, Ohio State finally accepted Cincinnati’s request for a game five seasons ago, when the Buckeyes, ranked No. 4 and featuring star freshman Greg Oden, dominated the Bearcats, 72-50, at the Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis. Cronin was in his first season, Cincinnati’s third coach in seven months after the tumultuous departure of Bob Huggins, and his undermanned team would finish 11-19.
Now, for just the second time in nearly 50 years, Ohio State and Cincinnati will battle for bragging rights. Then they’ll go their separate ways, leaving many back home in Ohio wondering if the two schools with a combined 15 Final Fours and three national championships ever will meet again.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.