It was a throwback night in more ways than one at St. John Arena on Friday night. Sure, the awesome uniforms, the pregame music — led by Toto and other 80s stalwarts —, the Jumbotron graphics, and Chris Holtmann’s beautiful suit were all wonderfully nostalgic. But, that wasn’t what made No. 23 Ohio State’s 89-62 win over Cleveland State feel so classic.
That distinction goes, rather, to the venue itself. For the first time since 2010 (it was a one-off then too), Ohio State returned to its rightful home in St. John Arena, to a sold-out crowd. That last part, “sold out crowd” is crucial here, and should be explained further. This game wasn’t sold out because of the opponent. No disrespect to Cleveland State, but Ohio State sold out exactly one basketball game last season, and had this been just any game, it would’ve almost certainly seen about 8,000 fans, rounded up to a generous 10,000.
It wasn’t just any game though. This was a return to the home of Ohio State basketball. It’s fitting, that Ohio State returns home, albeit for just one game, as the program returns to a form that it had lost in the past five years ago. Ohio State basketball lost its crown in the mid 2010s, found it again last year, and for one night, found the way back to its castle. Good Ohio State basketball in Value City Arena is good. Good Ohio State basketball in St. John Arena is right. It’s how things should be.
It was obvious all night that the capacity Ohio State crowd was finally at home too. People were giddy about being back in St. John Arena. I heard at least four fathers in my section talking to their children about the games that they saw in St. John Arena when they were kids. It wasn’t just a venue to host a basketball game, like Value City Arena is, it was a cathedral, filled to the brim with Buckeye basketball history that so often goes unrecognized by the university.
That’s what we lost in 1998 when Ohio State moved across the bridge to Value City Arena. St. John Arena will forever hold a massive piece of Ohio State’s basketball heart. No matter how much the university tries to sell out that piece to the highest bidder, or replace it with the Coca-Cola Crowd Experience™, it’ll never be St. John Arena. Ohio State can’t buy their way into another historic, intimate, and legendary arena.
What they could do, and what they should’ve done all those years ago, is address the myriad structural problems at St. John Arena, renovate it, and open back up for the foreseeable future. They won’t do it, of course, because they can’t monetize St. John Arena, but that’s the only way Ohio State can return to not only being a great basketball program, but a great basketball program with a home built for basketball. With a home built for intimidation. Opposing teams should fear, should dread, should hate coming to Columbus. There should be 13,000 fans bearing down on every team unlucky enough to stumble into St. John Arena.
Right now, they don’t. There’s nothing intimidating about Value City Arena. It’s a money grab at best, a glorified concert venue turned into a “Fun Experience For The Whole Family™” when the basketball team is playing. It’s an embarrassment. Chris Holtmann is leading Ohio State into a new era, and they need an arena to match that energy. They need a home. For one night, they found it once again, less than a mile from the “hotel” they’ve been staying at for the last two decades.