CINCINNATI, Ohio – Talk about strangers in the night. As Ohio State took the floor Wednesday to play a basketball game at Cincinnati, did anybody click a picture for posterity, considering how long it had been since the last time that happened?
Try Jan. 3, 1920. Harvard had won the Rose Bowl two days before. The year would see Prohibition officially begin, the Nineteenth Amendment grant women the vote, the first commercial radio stations go on the air, and Babe Ruth play his first game for the Yankees.
The schools are only 100 miles apart, in the same state, and basketball has meant a lot to both places. It is astonishing, that it has been so long – though they have met since on neutral courts in tournament play. Or as Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin told his media this week, “I’m sure there are people who never thought they’d see it in their lifetime.” So the Buckeyes’ 64-56 victory, while uplifting enough for Ohio State as a season opener, might not have been as significant as the game being played at all.
It was so loud, Cincinnati’s Jarron Cumberland would later say, “Some of the stuff that coach called, I couldn’t hear.”
It was so electric, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann would mention afterward, “I thought it would be a great environment, I don’t know that I even anticipated this environment. I’m sure it was not always aesthetically pleasing, two defensive teams that struggled a little bit offensively. I get it that it may not have been, at times, the most pleasant game to watch, but it was a heck of a competitive college basketball game for the second night of the season.”
📸s of the night from tonight’s victory Cincinnati 🔴⚪️— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) November 8, 2018
In other words, mission accomplished. Even if the Cincinnati camp didn’t feel that way, after shooting 27 percent.
“Crazy,” Ohio State’s Andre Wesson had said of the historical rarity of this meeting. “You look at that, and wonder why it hasn’t happened more.”
Well, about that. Theories abound why these two have met only twice in the past 56 years prior to Wednesday night. Administrations not getting along. Coaches angry at one another over recruiting battles. The Buckeyes never forgiving Cincinnati for beating them two years in a row in the national championship game in 1961 and ’62 — then and now, the only times teams from the same state have shared the final pairing.
Then there is the thought The Ohio State University has never been particularly eager to play against – and possibly lose to – some of its more dangerous in-state cousins. The Buckeyes haven’t visited Xavier since 1934. They haven’t met Dayton in a regular season game in 30 years.
Pick one reason, pick all of them. But now the administrations and coaches get along, and they all decided a high-attention game filled with ticket-buying customers seemed like a fine idea. This date was particularly appealing to Cincinnati; what better way to reopen its Fifth Third Arena after $87 million worth of renovations? Then the Buckeyes killed the mood by winning. They’ll play again next season in Columbus.
“I think it’s a good thing for us and our program or I wouldn’t have done it. But there are some risks involved, too,” said Holtmann, who in his second season signed off on this. “I just think in college basketball right now, you need on-campus games that are attractive for people.”
But what went through his mind when he heard 1920? Or the fact the Bearcats before Wednesday hadn’t lost in Fifth Third Arena in 26 games? “What am I thinking? All these Ohio State coaches before me, I think they had it figured out.”
He was kidding. Turned out Wednesday night, the joke would be on Cincinnati. But still. “I appreciate them playing,” Cronin said. “I think the game’s great for both of us.”
This was a match of two teams who are searching for replacement parts. Both teams lost conference players of the year from last season – Cincinnati’s Gary Clark in the American, Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop in the Big Ten. You could tell Wednesday it will be a process. Cincinnati missed 25 of its 29 shots in the first half, had twice as many fouls as field goals – and was still down only nine points at halftime, 27-18. Ohio State sometimes struggled against pressure defense.
Both coaches said the game served the purpose of openers – defining needs for the future. What could be better than that — a matchup with passion, and a tinge of history?
“Tom Izzo always plays hard games early,” Cronin said. “He always says it’s because he wants to know how good his team is, and he also wants to know what he needs to work on with his team, and his team will listen when they lose. That’s how I’ve got to approach it.”
Cronin was less upset about his team’s offensive woes than he what happened on the other end. His Cincinnati regime has been noted for defense.
“We’ve been doing that for a long time around here,” he said. “Give up 37 (points) in the second half, 55 percent from the field -- I’d be fired by now if we did that every game.”
From his Butler days, Holtmann remembers the Crossroads Classic with the Bulldogs, Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame. He wouldn’t mind an Ohio version, but there is always the issue of who doesn’t want to play whom. Dayton and Xavier have had a hard time getting together lately, too, and they’re barely 50 miles apart.
“We’re all working in our own best interests,” Holtmann said. “That can collide with maybe what’s collectively best for college basketball in the state. Some people just don’t want to play other people. I understand why we didn’t play Cincinnati and Xavier and Dayton for a while. But I think this thing with Cincinnati right now is good for us.”
Especially Wednesday night.