Only one calls itself The Ohio State University.
The flagship school from the leading basketball state in the nation – in this tournament, at least – will play Cincinnati in an East Regional semifinal Thursday night that is as much a Battle of the Buckeye State as it is a chance to move one game closer to a national title.
“What I’ve felt all along is it’s just a tremendous state for basketball,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who also coached at Miami of Ohio and Xavier before taking over the Buckeyes in 2004.
Although it is bordered by hoops hotbeds Kentucky (a state with nine NCAA titles) and Indiana (five), Ohio hasn’t really been considered a basketball state since placing a team in four consecutive championship games from 1960-63. (Ohio State won the first, then lost the next two to Cincinnati; the Bearcats returned in ’63 and lost to Loyola of Chicago.)
Ohio State has won two football championships since then, but its appearance in the basketball title game in 2007 is the only one for the state since the ’60s. Even – gasp! – Michigan, with three men’s basketball championship since then, has more to show from its trips to the NCAA Tournament.
“Ohio, everybody knows them as a football state. But we have a little bit of basketball talent inside those borders,” said Buckeyes forward Jared Sullinger, a Columbus native who is one of three Ohioans among the top four scorers on the team. “It’s just finally showing now.”
And not just at Ohio State.
Along with the Buckeyes and Bearcats, Xavier and Ohio have reached the round of 16 this year.
“I think the fact that you have four Ohio teams in the Sweet 16 is a sense of great pride for our state,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “In Cincinnati alone we have two, so it’s great for our community. … It’s probably good that we’re up here in Boston. We don’t have to worry so much about the ticket requests for the game.”
Cronin said there isn’t much of a rivalry with Ohio State because Cincinnati is just over the Ohio River from Kentucky.
The city as close to Louisville and Lexington as Columbus, and the Bearcats were in Conference USA with the Cardinals before they both joined the Big East.
But there’s more to it than that.
Despite being separated by a little more than 100 miles, Ohio State and Cincinnati have met just once since the 1962 championship game. In the meantime, there have been allegations flying both ways of recruiting violations, hiring snubs and scheduling snobbery.
“It still kind of has bad blood between the two schools,” Sullinger said. “So this one is going to be remembered for whoever goes to the Elite 8, and it’s going to be a battle of Ohio.”