Buckeye Statehood

Thanks to CBS and Wooden Tradition organizers, it took 44 years for Ohio State to renew a series, for one isolated year, against Cincinnati. It took the NCAA Tournament selection committee to end a 23-year drought against Xavier. And tonight in the NIT quarterfinals, it's the NIT bracketing ending a 19-year drought against Dayton. Kyle Lamb says it's time for Ohio State to stop playing dodge-ball.

High school, interestingly enough, is a lot like college basketball scheduling. Friends make up little groups, cliques and social circles, thereby ignoring the undesirable company.

To say this would be a microcosm of the non-conference scheduling strategy employed by collegiate head men's basketball coaches around the country might be an understatement.

The Ohio State University is certainly no stranger to this tactic. The flagship state university in Ohio has been blowing off its in-state classmates for several decades driving fans bananas, media-members restless and chief political figures curious.

But the game of scheduling dodge-ball has critics singing a different tune: "if you can't beat them, ignore them."

Certainly Ohio State's men's basketball program, rich in tradition with nine Final Four appearances (10 if you don't exclude a Serbian pay-off or two), 17 Big Ten Championships, 19 NBA first-round selections and 20 NCAA Tournament appearances, wouldn't dodge competition. Just in the past two seasons alone, the Buckeyes have played North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee twice with additional games against Butler, Iowa State, Texas A&M and Syracuse in the Preseason NIT.

But, as usual, perception is everything. It's time for Ohio State to sit with the other guys at the lunch table now and again. Make these naysayers go away.

The issue can be traced back in part to the 1961 & 1962 National Championships.

Losing a second consecutive championship game to the Cincinnati Bearcats, a program considered to be "renegade" by many inside the Buckeye circle, hostility was borne over what same alleged were questionable tactics.

"As far as Ohio State is concerned, they didn't think that Cincinnati had the same recruiting rules that Ohio State did," said Lee Caryer, author of The Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball, in an interview back in December of 2006.

Despite attempts from the NCAA selection committee and even state lawmakers, it was 44 years before the two programs renewed what's more aptly called a "non-rivalry."

And even when Ohio State did finally break the ice with a 72-50 victory against Cincinnati in the Wooden Tradition in Indianapolis last season, a game put together more because of CBS and the event organizers than Ohio State's athletic department, Bearcat head coach Mick Cronin questioned the timing.

"They caught us while we're down," he said after the game.

"I think that's a question you have to ask yourself," Cronin added in direct response to why the game was scheduled finally. "Why did they elect to schedule the game at this time?"

Cronin, coaching his first season as the head coach of Cincinnati at the time, had barely eight scholarship players at his disposal including a host of junior college transfers. But no one in Columbus was sympathetic.

"Nobody was feeling sorry for me when I got to Ohio State," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta quipped in response after being asked of Cronin's rhetorical question.

For reasons that may never be public, there's likely no love lost between the two coaches. But considering Matta and Cronin have been head coaches at these two institutions simultaneously for only two seasons, it doesn't begin to explain nearly a half-century drought.

Ironically enough, Cronin might play a bigger piece of the schools' history, or rather, non-history.

According to the NCAA report on Ohio State's secondary violation with regard to former McDonald's All-American guard Damon Flint, an anonymous phone call was made to the NCAA, alerting them of possible violations regarding an improper off-campus visit and improper inducements (meal and a gym bag) to Flint, who signed with Ohio State out of Cincinnati Woodward in 1993. Flint was later ruled ineligible to play for Ohio State and stayed home to play for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, Cronin, a Woodward varsity assistant finishing up his undergraduate degree at UC, wound up a Huggins assistant the very next season as a video coordinator. He became a full-fledged assistant just four years later.

Some have theorized Cronin was the Ohio State whistleblower. Others have not just theorized, but said it matter-of-factly.

Make no mistake: any chance of renewing the series in the mid to late 1990's were shot because of that incident. To say there was bad blood between the two universities is an understatement. The lingering effects, combined with a less-than-reputable persona cost Huggins a chance at the Ohio State job in 1997 following the dismissal of Randy Ayers.

The Buckeyes and Bearcats may have tangled in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, thanks to the committee putting 2-seed Cincinnati and 3-seed Ohio State in the same region. Both, however, stumbled in the second round. The story was the same again in 2002 when Cincinnati was a No. 1-seed and Ohio State a 4-seed. Once again, both were victims in the second round, leaving the anticipated match-up a hopeless hypothetical.

Prior to the Flint fiasco, the closest the two teams came to playing one another was 1992. The Bearcats made the Final Four, and would have played the Buckeyes, but Ohio State fell short in overtime of the Elite 8 against Big Ten foe Michigan.

But Cincinnati is only one piece of the pie. In-state showdowns have also eluded Xavier, Akron, Bowling Green, Miami, Ohio University, Wright State and Ohio State's Wednesday quarterfinal N.I.T. opponent, Dayton.

It's been 19 years since the Buckeyes and Flyers played one another. The last meeting, December 17, 1988, was a 104-76 victory for Ohio State (3-2 in the series). From 1985-1988, it appeared a budding rivalry was in the making under former Ohio State head coach Gary Williams. However, when Williams left for his alma mater Maryland, Ayers dropped the series.

It's not that Ayers was against playing in-state schools. In fact, quite the opposite was true.

Routinely, Ayers scheduled 2-3 Ohio opponents each season. When Jim O'Brien got the job from AD Andy Geiger in 1997, the games disappeared off the schedule entirely within two years – expedited by a 1998 loss to Toledo. At that point, O'Brien vowed to avoid scheduling these teams, possibly in-part to avoid recruiting disadvantages.

Ohio State has not played Akron since 1989. The Buckeyes haven't played Wright State or Ohio University since 1992 or 1994 respectively. Miami, Ayers' alma mater, hasn't played the Buckeyes since 1993.

Only a slight shift from Matta in his four years has given Kent State and Cleveland State a few shots at the big dog in the state, but his friendship with Xavier head coach Sean Miller means no regular season showdown are planned for the near future.

In fact, it was the NCAA selection committee, once again, that was responsible for the two teams finally facing each other in 2007. A second-round overtime thriller, won by Ohio State 78-71, was only the fourth meeting all-time between the two teams, and first since 1984.

Whether it's because of bad blood, friendship, recruiting, money or ulterior reasons, the Buckeyes need to step to the plate and spite the circumstances. It's time for Ohio State to act like the neighborhood bully and back down from no one on their alley.

Annual showdowns against Cincinnati, Dayton and/or Xavier would be thrilling for all involved. Better yet, a rotating four-team or even eight-team tournament involving teams from the Buckeye state would draw incredible interest, mentioning nothing of a profitable revenue stream.

Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen. And if it doesn't, the finger-pointing will continue right in the state capitol's direction. It's that p-word again.

Matta, who got an up-and-close personal view of Cincinnati during his three years at Xavier in the Cross-town Shootout, stepped on a few toes last December, hinting he wasn't likely to start his own rivalry with the Bearcats while in Columbus.

"I think you have to be careful of the quote en quote rivalry games," he said, fresh off the 22-point win against Cincinnati. "I don't know, maybe in time."

That time is most likely after Cronin departs. Even if Matta's (likely personal) reasons are not unfounded, and even if there's no love lost between the university and UC and its head coach, everyone should let bygones be bygones and put decades of history behind them.

Until that happens, there's clearly one school at fault.

In the meantime, Ohio State is showing the social networking skills of a high school student – snubbing those they want kept out of the inner-circle.

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