Ohio State is more than a football school
It’s a school built for fall mornings, for crisp air and tailgating, for The Game. It’s a school that takes pride in the Horseshoe, in Woody Hayes, in its seven national titles. Ohio State means football. It always has.
Ohio State never has taken to basketball the same way, not with the same love. It’s not as innate, not as deep. And yet the program is flourishing, rivaling the best it’s ever been, with the potential for its first national title since 1960.
Not that that changes much.
“We’re still a football school, according to people,’’ said star forward Jared Sullinger, whose team will face Cincinnati tonight in the NCAA East Regional semifinals at TD Garden. “We’ll live with that.
“I think this program, ever since coach [Thad] Matta came, he changed it around from what it came from.’’
There is tradition. There have been Hall of Famers, nine Final Four appearances, and that one national championship to the school’s credit. But Ohio State never has been in the same class with the true college basketball greats, with North Carolina and Duke, with Kansas and UCLA, with Indiana and Kentucky.
“There’s no question, football-wise we are a Goliath,’’ said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. “We sit 105,000 in ‘The Shoe,’ and we’ve lost track of our sellouts.
“It’s a huge football state, a huge football community, and our program is a football program, largely because of the long history and tradition that football has established here.’’
There is basketball tradition, too, in the legacy of John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas, of Jim Jackson and Greg Oden. But four of the nine Final Fours occurred before 1947, with three more coming from 1960-62. All of it is dwarfed by football.
“I wouldn’t say for the average basketball fan we would come into their mind,’’ point guard Aaron Craft said. “But that’s fine. It would be awesome to be up there with the North Carolinas and the Dukes. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, we’re going to continue to do what we do.’’
Though no one is yet comparing Matta to Hayes in terms of his impact on Ohio State athletics, the coach is doing his best to make the country aware of what is going on with the Buckeyes basketball program.
In his eight years at Ohio State, Matta has won five Big Ten titles, and his .774 winning percentage is superior to any other coach at the school with more than two seasons of work, by far the best in the last 100 years.
“He has taken our basketball program to a point where it is annually consistently one of the best in the country,’’ Smith said. “Our basketball program has always been kind of up and down. He’s taken it to a point where we’re on a constant upward trajectory, always with the elite of basketball programs.
“So the consciousness at the institution and in the community and the state relative to our basketball program over the last eight years with Thad has risen significantly. Some people just don’t always think of football, like they used to.’’
Some still do, of course. But for those giving the basketball team a chance, one of the more notable aspects of the rise under Matta has been the team’s consistency, its ability to reload even after losing players to the NBA.
“I think one of the things we haven’t been able to do extensively is develop a ‘system’ of ‘this is how we want to run our fast break,’ ‘this is what we want to do in the post,’ ‘this is how we want to play defense,’ ’’ Matta said.
“A lot of times, with as young as our program has been, we’ve really had to take the first three weeks of the season and say, ‘OK, what do we got? How do they work together?’ ’’
But Matta has been able to work with the pieces he finds, with the recruits he signs, and mold them into a top 10 team.
But along with all of the regular-season success, there has been one problem: the NCAA Tournament, at least of late.
While Ohio State made it to the championship game in 2007, losing to Florida, the Buckeyes have lost in the Sweet 16 each of the last two seasons, as a No. 2 seed in 2010 and as the overall No. 1 in 2011.
That isn’t going to make anyone forget football.
“A lot of people judge your program by the NCAA Tournament,’’ Smith said. “I know that’s the nature of the beast that we created.’’
But this year might bring Ohio State some luck, with the top seed in the region, Syracuse, having lost Fab Melo to ineligibility.
“It’s always difficult to sustain success,’’ said Smith. “Anybody that’s in this business or anyone in the corporate world that’s building a business, they’ll tell you it’s hard to stay there. And Thad’s done a marvelous job.’’
Maybe the faithful are changing. Maybe they’re letting basketball take up a slightly greater share of their hearts. To that end, Matta has sought to play off the popularity of the football program by scheduling a Friday night basketball game the day before the last football game of the season.
“They’re always seen as football,’’ said Gonzaga center Robert Sacre. “But I feel like that mentality’s changed. Especially when you look back, they’ve had great players come through.
“The program is really a prestigious program for basketball.’’
The players know it, but does the community? Does the country? Will they ever fully convert the legions of Ohio State fans?
“No,’’ Craft said. “But it’s OK. There’s nothing greater in the fall than being in The Shoe, watching our guys play football. It’s something that you get to embrace.
“It’s awesome to see Buckeye Nation come together through football, understanding the same fans back us during basketball season. I just think there’s more excitement around Ohio State all year round, instead of just around the football season.
“But football is always going to dominate. And I think we’re all right with that.’’