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Mike Lopresti | | March 16, 2023

Columbus, Ohio is the sole hot spot for both men's and women's tournament regionals

The most popular champion in 2023 March Madness brackets

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Well, it’s not a Michigan-Ohio State football weekend in Columbus, but this ain’t bad.

At Nationwide Arena downtown: The first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Purdue, No. 1 seed in the East, is the most renowned of the eight teams and the only one with a 7-4 center.

Just under four miles north at Schottenstein Center on the Ohio State campus: The NCAA women’s basketball tournament. The Buckeyes, the No. 3 seed in their region, are hosts but Purdue was on the First Four card Thursday night against St. John's and is the only school with both genders covered here this weekend. One difference between the two: The Boilermaker women's post player, Caitlyn Harper, is 14 inches shorter than Zach Edey, but then most of the world is.

“Hopefully we can paint Columbus gold and black," women's coach Katie Gearlds had said of the team Purdues. "And hopefully that starts on Thursday.”

Well, about that . . .

March Madness is scattered hither and yon around the nation this weekend but Columbus is the only place with both men and women. Even the public service announcements on the interstate billboards come with a basketball theme.

Leave the shots on the court. Drive sober.

Oh, and spring football is getting going for the Buckeyes as they try to settle on a new quarterback, if you want to know what the locals are really concerned about. 

Anyway, the hosts have their hands full. “Organized chaos is probably the best way to describe it,” Ohio State event manager Ericka Hoon was saying on her way from somewhere to somewhere else Thursday. “I have a really awesome staff and luckily we’re all back to full force since COVID and we’re able to divide and conquer.” 

By the way, Ohio State is also home this weekend in baseball, lacrosse, volleyball and tennis.

“We’re excited to see they’re happening on opposite days,” Hoon said of the men and women in basketball. When one gender is playing games, the other is practicing. And vice versa. "It’s fun to know we’re just miles away from each other." An eight-minute drive, in fact.

On the men’s end, the Blue Jackets, owners of the worst record in the NHL, are out of town, so instead of Columbus vs. the Boston Bruins at Nationwide Arena Friday, it’ll be USC vs. Michigan State. Thursday was for practice sessions and USC was first on the clock at 11 a.m., which is pretty early in the morning back in California. Then again, Friday’s tip is just after noon. “Told our players no excuses,” coach Andy Enfield said. “It might feel like 9 in the morning (Friday) but we’re in March Madness."

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The pep band was here to welcome the players to the court. Nothing like a rousing verse of Fight On at 8 a.m Pacific time to get the blood moving. Besides, USC joins the Big Ten soon so the Trojans better get used to playing across time zones. “Actually, someone reminded us when we landed Tuesday night, hey, this is going to be the normal trip,” Enfield said. “But we’ll get to that in a year from now.”

Later came Purdue’s practice, preparing for Fairleigh Dickinson. The Boilermakers’ last appearance in the NCAA tournament is hard to forget. It was 356 days ago they took an historic Sweet 16 loss to a No. 15 seed. “Obviously,” Fairleigh Dickinson guard Grant Singleton said Thursday, “we’ve seen what Saint Peter’s did last year.”

The question is what Purdue's players learned from that infamy. “That Saint Peter’s had played harder than we did,” coach Matt Painter said. “That’s what they learned.”

A year later he still regrets he didn’t see that issue coming.

“What’s frustrating as a coach is that we had played well . . . and obviously advanced to the Sweet 16. There were no red flags. That’s your job as a coach to be able to see some things because it is your team and that others can’t see from the outside. 

“It’s hard to take but you keep going and you learn from it and you don’t let it happen again.”

Fairleigh Dickinson arrived in town Wednesday night after a short bus ride from the First Four in Dayton. This time last season coach Tobin Anderson and his staff at St. Thomas Aquinas were driving their players to tournaments themselves in vans. Things have changed in his world, and the excitement of getting a shot at Purdue leaked out from Dayton, when he was caught on tape in the locker room telling his team that the more he watched the Boilermakers on tape, the more he thought the Knights could win. 

There's a coach just wanting his guys to believe. But the cameras were rolling. It hit Purdue's social media in about 30 seconds.

“They lost last year to Saint Peter’s in the NCAA tournament, they’re trying to win a national championship, I don’t think they need any extra motivation,” Anderson said. “But I probably gave them a little bit right there.

“I told the guys, `I’m sorry about that, fellas. We’ll have to back it up. We have to play well because I said that.”

Wrapping up practice day was an unusual visitor, Florida Atlantic, ready for its first NCAA tournament game in 21 years, against Memphis. One of the surprises of the season, the Owls have yet to be fazed by the lights and attention that keep growing ever brighter. “Everything change outside the court,” center Vladislav Goldin said. “But everything is the same on the court.”

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Not long after the practices ended and four miles up the road, the Purdue and St. John’s women took the court in the First Four. This was the Boilermakers’ first NCAA tournament game in six years, which is a long time for the only Big Ten program to ever win a national championship, and that was 24 years ago.

Gearlds made getting back to the tournament a priority. “Changed the pass code in our locker room to make sure it had something to do with March because we wanted to give ourselves an opportunity,” she said.

Interesting thing about this game. All 10 starters were grad students or seniors. Purdue had most of the fans, many of them no doubt in Columbus for double duty. But St. John’s, after blowing a 15-point lead, won 66-64 on Jayla Everett’s off-balance baseline jumper with 0.3 seconds left. The Red Storm pep band played New York, New York to celebrate as the exhausted — and in Purdue’s case heart-broken — women left the floor.

The USC and Michigan State men would be tipping off downtown in 15 hours.

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