The media will converge on the Buckeyes this week like an army of hungry termites at a lumber buffet, and a strong basketball team stuck representing a football school will be a recurrent theme.
There will be stories that make the Ohio State players seem like lost souls aimlessly wandering a college football paradise, and columns that compare them to bright kids always waving their hands in class but unable to get their teacher’s attention. Others might even advance the theory that this is a chance to prove the basketball program has finally arrived.
Knowledgeable reporters know that it arrived years ago, but there have been enough gaps in the program’s success B.T. — Before Thad — to give those pursuing that angle enough of an opening to go that way. The Final Four will draw lots of media types who have never seen the Buckeyes play, some who might think the basketball program exists to fill the empty nights between football signing day and the start of spring football.
Sometimes, the Ohio State players inadvertently contribute to that notion by making it sound as though this trip to the Final Four will be the one to change the perception.
“It means a lot,” sophomore Jared Sullinger said after the Buckeyes’ 77-70 victory over Syracuse in the East Regional final on Saturday. “Ohio State is known as a football school, and it’s been forever known as a football school. Getting to the Final Four, we should get the stamp now that it’s not only a football school, it’s a football and basketball school.”
There’s no denying that Ohio State has long been a football school, and we all know what that’s supposed to mean: Its basketball program is out of its element competing against schools where hoops is the real religion, schools such as Kentucky, Louisville and North Carolina (or Kansas).
Whoa, is this a coincidence or what? As luck would have it, the Buckeyes will share the Final Four stage with those basketball bluebloods. So the media termites have another reason to gnaw away on that football-basketball angle when the Buckeyes arrive in New Orleans this week. The story has a little more texture when you can say the Buckeyes not only are ignored at home, but out of place at the sport’s biggest party, riffraff in basketball high society.
It would be a better tale if it were true. This is not only the second Final Four trip in the past five years under coach Thad Matta but the third in 13 years for the program. The trip under Jim O’Brien in 1999 doesn’t appear in the school’s press releases; part of the punishment for the NCAA violations that got O’Brien fired was the elimination of all of those games from the record books. But unless the NCAA can erase the memories of all who saw the games, everyone in this part of the country knows they happened.
And even if we don’t count that one, Ohio State already has made nine appearances in the Final Four, sixth among all schools.
For many years, a powerful OSU program was held back by the institution’s image as a football school. When longtime coach Fred Taylor, who took the Buckeyes to four Final Fours and won a national title in 1960, used to sarcastically describe the administration’s position that “it’s only basketball,” it really was treated as football’s poor stepchild and would have been ripe for the stories described above.
The culture is changing. Matta’s program really is among the nation’s elite and he is starting to get credit for it. The crowds at Value City Arena have been growing, which happens when you have two Final Four teams in five years, eight straight 20-win seasons and back-to-back 30-win seasons.
A national championship would make a stronger case, but seriously, should anyone really doubt that Ohio State is a football and basketball school now?