Blizzard is probably better known to most as the student in the large novelty foam hat that endlessly cheers on Ohio State from its student section at many a sporting event. Wednesday night, with Value City Arena shaking from a buzz that rarely envelops it, Blizzard's bubbly cheering and antics fit right in.
Yes, the Buckeyes' eventual runaway win over the in-state Dayton Flyers was no ordinary Ohio State basketball game. It didn't take long for it to sink in that this would be the case.
Walking to the arena was the first clue, as throngs of people moved in waves across the Olentangy River. The Varsity Club on Lane Avenue was packed to the gills, some fans sporting the trademark Dayton red and blue. At the corner of Olentangy River Road and Lane Avenue, Flyers fans started the UD "Go Dayton Flyers" cheer. "O-H" and "I-O" were quick in response.
Upon entering the arena, the buzz was palpable. As the teams went through pregame shootaround half an hour before tipoff, much of the arena was already full. The sections behind each basket stood in anticipation while the same could be said for much of the courtside areas. Each team's band, an oddity for a game in VCA, took turns entertaining the crowd with tunes. With 12 minutes to go before the game, both teams retreated to their respective locker rooms to a massive cheer.
"Even in shootaround, hearing the people, it gets your blood flowing," Buckeye freshman Jon Diebler said.
As the tip neared, there was no piped-in sound effect of Michael Buffer imploring the crowd to be ready to rumble. There were just 19,049 fans, a true sellout, on their feet cheering on their favorite team. Those not sporting any shade of blue sang the "Buckeye Battle Cry" as OSU took to the floor.
Ohio State grabbed an 18-15 lead and, with the crowd reaching a crescendo, forced a Dayton turnover going to a media timeout. At that, the UD band began playing the "Go Dayton Flyers" cheer, which the mostly pro-Buckeye crowd drowned out with an elongated version of the "O-H-I-O" cheer through the entire timeout. Not missed by any, "Buckeye Family Feud" was nowhere to be found; how ironic that it would take an NIT game to show the OSU marketing department how to create an atmosphere.
When Dayton came out of the break on a 7-0 run, the roar was nearly deafening for OSU's southwestern neighbor.
"It was incredible, the atmosphere in there," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. "Dayton is a tremendous program, a tremendous university. I've had to go over there and play many times as a player and as a coach, and I think it shows you what a great program that it is that they chose to come over and support. That was an electric feeling in there."
Just how loud was it?
"This is the greatest feeling in the world," OSU swingman Evan Turner said. "When you sit there and watch Duke and North Carolina when you're younger, you're like, ‘I want to play in that type of atmosphere.' "
That's right, an Ohio State basketball player comparing a game between the Buckeyes and Flyers to the holy grail of college cage rivalries, that between North Carolina and Duke. While the historic significance there isn't comparable, there was a certain high to come from watching two teams just an hour of highway time apart going at it.
That's one of the main reasons why, perhaps, playing in the NIT was a good thing for this particular edition of Buckeye basketball. Within the span of three days, the Buckeyes were able to satisfy the wishes of innumerable sport purists who would love to see the roundball Bucks suit up more often in the estimable St. John Arena and also play fellow Division I teams from the state of Ohio.
Make no mistake, the rocking atmosphere in VCA wasn't because the fans all of a sudden decided that the NIT was worth showing up for in droves. Only a notch above 7,000 souls took in Ohio State's tournament-opening win against UNC-Ashville, and if Illinois State had disposed of UD on its home court Monday night it's safe to say the chill factor would have been a little less on Wednesday night.
Instead, the fans were able to see the kind of matchup they might long for on a regular basis. Ohio State's long-held aversion to facing in-state programs – especially the ones that might give the Scarlet and Gray a run for its money – has been discussed and dissected in many ways, and most basketball fans with a pulse know the university is doing everyone a disservice from shying away from such showdowns.
Again, make no mistake, the Coppin States and Tennessee Techs of the world don't exactly get the blood pumping in Value City Arena, no matter how many times the Buckeyes throw down jams over overmatched opposition.
And wouldn't it have been more interesting this year to see Ohio State face Dayton and Xavier rather than Florida and Butler – two out-of-state schools who were teams of similar strength to those the Buckeyes could have had on the schedule from within the state's borders?
This writer is a proponent of the establishment of an Ohio tournament to be held each November, a tourney that would include OSU and three other Ohio schools. Because basketball schedules are made only months before the season, it would be pretty easy to find what one might think would be the four best teams in the state for the coming year and match them up in a bracket over a weekend. It would be quite the spectacle, and there would have been no shame – especially in the RPI – this year for OSU had it lost to Xavier, a No. 3 seed when the NCAA Tournament rolled around.
Of course, this is nothing but a pipe dream, and to be honest, the last two games have shown perhaps that the victory of dollars and cents over atmosphere and tradition haven't all been a bad thing. As much as fun as the return to St. John Arena was, it was a good thing Ohio State had Value City Arena Wednesday night. Though the atmosphere in SJA would have been unbelievable, VCA holds 6,000 more spectators, and as many people as possible deserved to see OSU and Dayton go head to head.
As for the much-desired more frequent showdowns between Ohio schools, it isn't hard to see them losing luster if they become yearly occurrences. This year's OSU-Cleveland State game wasn't exactly an event of historic proportions. The matchup with traditional basketball power UD was so, and the fans and atmosphere responded in kind. The 15,000 or so Buckeye fans and 4,000 and change UD fans wouldn't have been anywhere else but VCA last night.
And that's what made it both atypical and so special. If this became a yearly game, it's hard to imagine the same passion and intensity would be present for each installment. Instead, the games become just another on the schedule, games with slightly more interest than those against VMI. With OSU being the traditional big dog in the state, it's not hard to imagine the already fickle Buckeye roundball fan base turning blasé to the prospect of annual matchups with "less prestigious" Buckeye State squads.
For those lucky enough to be inside Value City Arena last night, the game was one they won't soon forget. Years from now, people might still talk about that night in late March back in ought-eight. Oh, what a night it was.