I must admit, I have never been in attendance for a Big Ten men’s basketball game inside St. John Arena. The only conference game — and big game — atmosphere that I know surrounding the Ohio State Buckeyes basketball program has come inside the Value City Arena at the Schottenstein Center.
I was there in 2005 when Matt Sylvester hit the game-winning shot against LSU, albeit I was walking around the concourse thinking OSU was toast. When I was a student at Ohio State from 2012-16, the first men’s basketball game that attended was against Akron; the game where they unveiled and raised the 2012 Final Four banner into the rafters. I witnessed nearly four years of basketball games as a student, with all but one from press row or the press box.
The Schottenstein Center can get loud for games, but it takes a Buckeye team with allof the momentum in the world to get the fans into can’t-think-straight levels of loud. When the likes of Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, or Michigan State visited, the arena was somewhat loud. But, when I went to cover a game at the University of Maryland in 2016 — the game that OSU lost by 35 — I was surprised at what I saw and heard. The Xfinity Center, UMD’s home, was electric. Students were still off for winter break, and yet it was head and shoulders louder than The Schott.
For reference, Xfinity Center holds a touch less than 18,000 for a basketball game; the Schottenstein Center holds over 18,800. While both venues are on the upper-end in terms of capacity, the Terrapin’s home seemed a lot louder, and more compact.
When the likes of Purdue and Michigan State have their games broadcast on national television, both of their basketball homes look intense. The crowds are rocking, and specifically the student sections are absolutely nuts. Of all of the major basketball venues, Duke’s Cameron Indoor cranks the intensity all the way up for the full 40 minutes of a basketball game. The students are so close, they are practically hovering atop the court. Cameron Indoor’s environment can give any visiting squad the heebie jeebies.
In the Thad Matta era, Ohio State basketball had some incredible players; Jared Sullinger, Mike Conley Jr., Greg Oden, Evan Turner, D’Angelo Russell, DeShuan Thomas and Aaron Craft are just some of the Buckeye greats that helped raise two banners into the rafters at The Schottenstein Center. With all of that firepower on the court, how couldn’t OSU have a basketball environment that rivaled that of Cameron Indoor, or at least the Xfinity Center?
The easy answer: the Schott is too large for basketball.
There’s a pro basketball — and multipurpose — feel to the whole arena. Can it do basketball games? Yup. Can it hold 20,000 for a concert? You bet. Do they have to put curtains up in the upper deck for hockey games to make the arena feel a little less... big? No comment.
A multipurpose arena is great when you want some sort of structure that can hold concerts and multiple sports. So Value City was a smart, logistic move for the OSU Athletic Department. But, if you want an intimidating, intimate environment for basketball, you can’t have both. Something has to be sacrificed.
Ohio State can keep the Schott for their concerts, but basketball needs to go back to some place that’s a little more homey. If only they had a place on campus that’s still in working order that could do that...
When I was a student at OSU, I had the opportunity to broadcast some women’s basketball games. One of them took place at St. John Arena. Even though it wasn’t well-attended, it was loud. The reason? You were right there on the floor with everyone else.
Just imagine if a top-25 matchup occurred in the Chris Holtmann era inside SJA. It would be loud, the place would be rocking, and if things got energized enough, you may start to feel the old ghosts of St. John Arena. You know, the ones who helped bring a national title back to Columbus in 1960.
What makes a place like Ohio Stadium intimidating? The crowd, certainly. But, the history and important moments also make The Horseshoe, The Horseshoe. Combine both, and you get a supercharged environment. Have only one, and you might have a place — on a very good day — that can become intimidating. Value City Arena, while on the younger side for arenas at the age of 20, has compiled some notable history. All-Americans have come onto that court, a pair of Final Four banners have been raised, and a potential Hall of Fame coach in Matta graced — and paced — the sideline.
As the students have been shuffled around the bowl of the Schott in recent years, the energy has increased significantly, and the players and coaches have noticed. But, if OSU wants to take the in-game environment up to elite levels, that energy needs to come from everyone in attendance, not just the students.
That doesn’t happen right now for OSU basketball. And when everyone does get into the game, the distance from the court makes it hard to actually feel like you are part of the action.
St. John Arena holds about six thousand less than the Schott, but which of these two alternatives would make a better basketball environment: a sold-out 13,000 seat arena, or an 18,800 seater that is a few thousand below capacity?
In 2012, OSU men’s basketball averaged 16,511 over 20 games, according to the NCAA. In 2013, that average went up just a smidgen to 16,524. That was a period of recent success for Buckeye basketball, which resulted in a banner. Last season, in Holtmann’s first year, 13,495 was the average over 18 home games; though it increased as the season progressed.
If there is a surplus of seats, there really isn’t that much of a demand. But, if there were fewer seats, then it becomes a harder ticket to score. Then, it becomes even harder yet if the team is in title contention; be it Big Ten or otherwise.
Games at St.John Arena would make the environment for both basketball programs more intense. Put the students in the lower perimeter and fill up the rest with diehard fans, and you have a mighty basketball environment once again. The Schott is still a good venue, but there’s a greater one already on campus.
Obviously there myriad financial, aesthetic, and comfort reasons to play basketball games at the Value City Arena. But if you make it special, there’s no harm in spreading the games around.
This season, the men’s team will play a November non-conference game at SJA. Let’s hope for that trend to not only continue, but to increase. Even though a football cathedral is just across the street, St. John Arena has the history and the environment to create athletically religious experiences as well.
It’s time to embrace it once again.