BOSTON — There are 347 schools playing Division I men’s basketball. Thirteen are from Ohio. Four of those are among the 16 teams still playing in the NCAA tournament.
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 on Thursday night in an East Regional semifinal 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.
“I think a lot of times in the high school ranks it gets tabbed as a football state, just all the great players that they’ve put out. But just in the time that I’ve been there … I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how passionate the fans are. It takes a lot of luck for four teams to get here, obviously. I think it speaks volumes to the level of basketball in the state.”
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 straight 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, with Xavier set to play Baylor in the South Regional semis and Ohio preparing for North Carolina in the Midwest.
“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 tucked into the southern corner of the state, 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 along Interstate 71, 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.”
For the winner, though, there’s more at stake: A spot in the regional finals, and a chance to bring back to Ohio its first NCAA title since 1962.
“I think by us playing here in the Sweet 16, it’s not about Cincinnati versus Ohio State. It’s about advancing, trying to get to the Elite 8,” said Bearcats forward Yancy Gates, a Cincinnati native. “Really we’re just focused on trying to get to New Orleans like everybody else here. It’s not about whether we’re playing Ohio State or Florida State; it’s about the task at hand.”