Ohio State basketball has many heroes spread throughout the 119-year history of the program. That comes with the territory of being a major brand in any sport, specifically a college sport. When you’re popular enough for long enough, people will take notice, and when people take notice of a sports team, more often than not, they fall in love with the team, and the players that make it up.
Ohio State fans have fallen in love with quite a few basketball players and coaches over the years. Columbus first caught basketball fever in the early 1960s when Fred Taylor led Ohio State to its only national title, and the town, state, and university have been chasing those ghosts ever since.
A few times, Ohio State very nearly exercised the demons that come with a near 60-year title drought. That’s where those fan favorite heroes come from. Players like Lawrence Funderburke, Jim Jackson and Chris Jent on the 1991 team that advanced to the Elite Eight are still remembered fondly, despite coming from the largely disappointing Randy Ayers era.
Following Ayers, Jim O’Brien got closer in his second year than any coach since Taylor had, reaching the Final Four before falling to a 34-2 UConn team that would go on to win the national title. That team, buoyed by two of the best guards that Ohio State has ever seen in Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn, captured the hearts of Ohio State fans everywhere, and brought the kind of excitement to the program that Ohio State had really never seen before.
That excitement was matched, or perhaps even topped by Thad Matta, and the “Thad Five” in 2006, when Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Ron Lewis led one of the nation’s most dominant teams to a national title appearance, before falling just short to Florida. Near misses through the entire Evan Turner/Jared Sullinger/Aaron Craft era (2009-2013) raised hopes sky high yet again, but the Buckeyes never could quite get over the hump to win a title.
The thread that connects all of these players and teams — outside of their general on-the- floor excellence — was the excitement and joy that they brought to Ohio State, and Columbus as a whole. Ohio State has struggled with consistency over those 119 seasons, and has had decade-long stretches of below average play, but when the team is competing at a top level, the town shows up for them, and the support of Columbus at your back can mean a lot for a Buckeye basketball team.
No one would know that better than former Buckeye point guard, 2013 Ohio State Hall of Fame inductee, and current director of player development Scoonie Penn. Earlier this fall, I talked to him about Buckeye basketball, Columbus, the importance of building a culture, and what the future of Buckeye basketball looks like. His quotes can be found throughout this piece.
“A lot of the credit goes to our guys, of course. They worked hard, they bought into what coach was selling. Coach Holtmann has a great game plan, so we practice well; we practice hard all season. It’s a true testament to working hard and buying into what coach is selling, that there’s a possibility for great things, and that’s what happened for us last season.”
After several down years at the end of the Thad Matta era, excitement about Ohio State basketball had left Columbus. The coaches felt it, the players felt it, and the fans obviously felt it because they were the ones looking at the schedule and choosing to spend their time elsewhere, rather than cheering on teams that frankly weren’t very good.
I may be too young to remember the worst of Buckeye basketball, but the 2016-2017 season is probably the most miserable I can remember, save for maybe the last two years of the Jim O’Brien era. The team had talent but rarely played like it, often getting out-hustled and out- worked by lesser teams on the way to a 17-15 season.
There are plenty of causes, most of which could be boiled down to complacency, and I think the key place to start is with the staff itself, and specifically, Thad Matta. It was obvious at the end of his tenure that while he still had the fire to work with the players, he could no longer keep up with the other responsibilities of coaching a major college basketball program, and that reflected on the court and off. Most notably, recruiting fell off a bit after an excellent 2014 class that brought Jae’Sean Tate, D’Angelo Russell and Keita Bates-Diop to Ohio State.
All five members of the 2015 class transferred out of the program before last season even started, and the top member of the 2016 class, Derek Funderburk, did the same. However, the transfusion of energy when Chris Holtmann was hired was quickly evident, as he managed to salvage a decimated 2017 class, finishing with pledges from Kaleb Wesson, Kyle Young and Musa Jallow, all of whom look to be major contributors this year.
The difference in recruiting styles between Matta and Holtmann was immediately apparent, but what we may not have realized at the time is the difference on the court that a fresh face would bring. The 2017-2018 version of Ohio State basketball was different in just about every way from its predecessor, despite adding just four new faces (2017 class and Andrew Dakich), while losing major contributors like Marc Loving, Jaquon Lyle and Trevor Thompson (though the amount that they actually contributed could be up for debate).
Even with what seemed like a team fairly devoid of top-level talent heading into the year, it was obvious that things were different at Ohio State.
Ohio State basketball, as presumably every fan of the team knows, was not the same squad at the end of the year as at the beginning. They struggled against the best teams in the non-conference portion of the season, and didn’t really hit their stride until the Big Ten season kicked off in earnest around January. The most memorable games of the season were all conference games, with the come-from-behind wins against Michigan and Purdue marking what seemed to be a switch-flip for the team, and the blowout win over Michigan State serving as one of the most enjoyable Buckeye basketball games I’ve ever seen.
When asked about those games, Scoonie, unsurprisingly, chose instead to cite the losses as being turning points for the Buckeyes, rather than those big wins. That may sound like pretty common coach-speak, but with his background — and the background of this entire coaching staff — it makes a lot of sense.
The 1998 OSU team that went to the Final Four lost three non-conference games, including in overtime at Vanderbilt, followed closely by a disappointing loss to Toledo in the next game. The ties between that season and the 2017-2018 season are striking in retrospect. Each had an overtime loss to a decent non-conference team (Toledo in 1998, Butler in 2017); close loss to an ACC team that turned out to be awesome (Miami in 1998, North Carolina in 2017). Even a late season loss to an average Penn State team in both seasons can be related, for obvious reasons.
“I would say two games, when we were in Portland in the PK80, when we got it handed to us by Gonzaga — they blew us out — and then we lost a game to Butler, where we came back, and we lost in overtime. Sometimes people point to the wins, but I’m pointing at those games, that trip, that had to do with what we became as a team. Our guys didn’t hang their heads, they continued to work, and I think that made us better”
The ties between those two teams don’t end on the schedule. Both teams won with a hard- nosed style of basketball, and the kind of mentality that we really hadn’t seen at Ohio State in the waning years of Matta’s tenure. Led by several veteran leaders (Redd, Jason Singleton, Ken Johnson in 1998-99 and Bates-Diop, Tate, Williams, Dakich in 2017), the Buckeyes fought their way through a packed Big Ten, surging early before falling a bit late, to ultimately finish behind a Michigan State team that would go on to disappoint in the NCAA tournament.
The final, and perhaps strongest tie between the two teams is Scoonie Penn himself. He was a leader for the 1998 team, and two decades later, he is once again in a familiar position, helping to lead a high-performing Buckeye team. He’s the tie between the ghosts of Buckeye basketball past, and what seems to be its shimmering future.
“On the court, I think this program is poised to do some really good things, some big things. The ultimate goal is that we want to win Big Ten championships and want to, nevermind just get to the tournament, we want to get to Final Fours and win National Championships.”
It’s easy to fall in love with a sports team, and to buy in, 100 percent that this is going to be the year that they win it all. Take it from me, a lifelong Browns fan hard-headed enough to believe every single year for nearly two decades that they’d be a playoff team that year.
In college sports, however, that phenomenon is even more extreme. You’re cheering for likable college students, and more often than not, your team has absolutely zero chance at winning a title. It’s a cruel system, and not just in the way that amateur sports are operated.
In college football, if you cheer for a Group of Five team, you know going into the season that your team can’t possibly win the ultimate prize. It’s the same feeling for just about every mid-major program in college basketball, and honestly, quite a few power programs as well (sorry Rutgers fans, it’s probably not gonna happen for y’all).
Despite all signs pointing to falling deeply in love with what is essentially a doomed team being a bad idea for the mental (and physical) health of a fan, millions still do it every year, and will continue to do it every year until the end of all sports.
Fortunately for Ohio State fans,they don’t have to deal with that in any major sport. The Buckeyes will always be in the running. Whether the game is played on grass, dirt, wood or ice, Ohio State is going to have a shot at winning a national title. They’re simply too big not to.
That’s easy to forget though. When a program like the Buckeye basketball program goes so long (58 years this season) without a title, it’s natural to start to question if the program can ever return to greatness. We see that every time that Texas football is back, only to lose to an average team like, oh, I don’t know, Maryland. We see that every time a major program, in any sport, fires its coach for just being good, rather than being great.
It’s also very easy to decide that a program is back (again, Texas) thanks to a hire, a great recruiting class, or one good year. Under Chris Holtmann, Ohio State checks all of those boxes. They’ve drummed up quite a bit of hype with their on-the-court play, and perhaps even more hype off of it, landing a five-star and two top four-star prospects in the 2019 class.
While it can’t be said for sure, because I can’t see the future, Ohio State’s current hype doesn’t feel manufactured, it feels worthwhile and sustainable. It doesn’t feel like yet another run of a coach getting close, but never quite reaching that final goal in Columbus. Chris Holtmann, and the entire staff at Ohio State, put off a vibe that we’ve never seen before. They know what they’re doing, and they’re more than happy to show that in the results on the court, not just in public statements.
“This is a very blue collar staff. Guys come here every day, they work, they put the time in, no prima donnas, Coach Holtmann isn’t like that, he’s not a me guy, he’s not a guy that’s about the headlines and the publicity”
Ohio State fans, like the team, didn’t really hit a stride last year until the conference season kicked off. Attendance slowly rose as people took notice of what the team was doing, with a roughly half-full Schottenstein Center early in the year turning into a packed, full-capacity event against Illinois (18,743) and Iowa (18,809) in early February.
The end-of-season average (13,495) is nearly 5,000 people short of a sellout, but it’s not hard to see why Buckeye fans were slow to buy in, given what the past few seasons had looked like (and to be fair to fans, the 2017-2018 attendance was a significant increase from each of the past two years). Sports and sports fandom are not a one-way street.
In general, the team has to be decent, or improving, for fans to show up and support it. For the first time since 2012, the team was improving, entertaining, and — above all else— damn good at basketball. And accordingly, the fans responded.
There was a palpable energy in the building when Ohio State beat the brakes off of Michigan State in January. It was loud. The kind of loud that only a fan base coming off of several years, or even decades, of frustration can be. Buckeye fans saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and responded in turn.
The games weren’t the only thing drawing people back to the basketball program though. Chris Holtmann’s demeanor in interviews, his purchasing of lunch for students, and free ticket giveaways all endeared the new head coach to a massive group of students that really hadn’t had a compelling reason to support the team in years past. Coach Holtmann may not like the publicity, or the headlines, but he’s certainly become a darling in the media, and amongst Buckeye fans.
Throw in a group of experienced players showing levels of interest and excitement that the program had been missing in years past, and it’s easy to see why Buckeye Nation rallied around the team. How could you not, when Tate is throwing down game changing dunks against Michigan, Williams is knocking down every shot he looks at, and Dakich is floating layups 30 feet into the air, all while Bates-Diop is calmly and quietly putting together one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from a Buckeye basketball player? Columbus was in love, and the team responded to it.
“I don’t think people realize how much [the fans] fuel the program, and how much they help us win games and be successful. I personally realize it a whole lot, because I had great crowds when I played here. It was rocking, it was on fire all the time, and I remember the fuel we felt, walking into the arena on game day, we knew our crowd was going to bring it.”
It’s impossible to say what all of this hype will actually mean for Ohio State basketball. It’s impossible to say if upcoming awesome recruiting classes will finally be what pushes the Buckeyes back to the Final Four, and perhaps, a National Championship. College basketball is so unpredictable, and while the future is bright at Ohio State, the timing may never be right for Chris Holtmann to win a title in Columbus.
Maybe, however, the Buckeyes will reach that peak. If they can’t this season, maybe they will next year, when the elite 2019 recruiting class joins a team that will likely return almost every one of its best players. Or perhaps it could come even further down the road. Chris Holtmann is here for the long run, after all.
The fun in sports is that we don’t know when that magical season might come. There’s no surefire way to say which team will win a national title in any given year until it actually happens. What we do know is that Buckeye basketball is back for the foreseeable future. That means that the raucous crowds, the massive Big Ten battles, and everything that comes with a healthy Buckeye basketball program is back.
Ohio State fans are hungry for a national title. Ohio State players and coaches are even hungrier. The stage is set. The bar has been raised. Ohio State basketball is entering a new golden age, with some help from the face of one of the last golden ages. Scoonie Penn knows more about competing for a national title than certainly I do, and puts it into words better than I ever could.
“I know that’s me speaking, but I guarantee if you were to speak to the coaching staff, they’d tell you the same thing; if [winning national titles is] not your goal, if that’s not what we’re playing for, then why are we doing this anyway?” - Scoonie Penn