The Resurgent Ohio State Men's Basketball Team Shares a Place in 2018 With Two Other Historically Great Ohio Basketball Programs

By Johnny Ginter on January 19, 2018 at 10:20 am
The glory days of Ohio State versus Cincinnati

There are many, many photos of yours truly as an elementary school kid in the early-to-mid 90s, and in every single one of them I'm rocking some combination of three extremely stylish fashion choices: first, a pair of gigantic glasses modeled after those of my personal hero, celebrity fisherman Bill Dance, second, a Lloyd Christmas bowl cut, and third, a Cincinnati Bearcats starter jacket.

I've written before about how my love for UC basketball was my first true sports allegiance, and to be completely honest I didn't really follow Buckeye football religiously until I was almost in my teens. But in my defense, in case someone ever tries to blackmail my family with my 5th grade class picture showing me in a Michigan sweatshirt, it's important to understand that growing up in southwestern Ohio, especially when I did, information about Ohio State sports was carefully meted out from the Butler county arm of Pravda like so many breadcrumbs to prevent dissent in the ranks.

So for a decent chunk of my childhood, the Crosstown Shootout had way, way more object permanence than The Game (which was still important, but didn't become a true obsession until it appeared that Ohio State might not ever win against Michigan again). Cincinnati had Bob Huggins and Nick Van Exel and Kenyon Martin and Danny Fortson, and Xavier had a bunch of snooty jerks I never bothered to learn the names of, plus David West. My Catholic high school forced the DJ to interrupt my junior year homecoming dance multiple times to give us updates on the UC/XU game, which made my night increasingly worse and my classmates' much better.

That rivalry matters for a lot of reasons, but the reason why you, an assumed Ohio State fan without a lot of skin in this game, should care is that both Xavier and Cincinnati are traditional powerhouses that have been and are currently very good at basketball in 2018, and this is one of those cases where a rising tide lifts all b-ball boats in the state of Ohio.

Let's start with Xavier, which has been really good since the mid 80s despite not having a single coach stay at the school for longer than nine seasons. Since 2000, the Musketeers have made the Sweet Sixteen or gone even further in the NCAA tournament seven times, under coaches Chris Mack, Sean Miller, and oh yeah; Thad Matta.

It's hard to overstate how angry Xavier fans were when Matta left there for Ohio State. He was seen as the kind of guy who could take Xavier to the first Final Four in the history of the school, and expectations were incredibly high for his teams. Plus, Matta leaving Xavier, a school with a multi-decade pedigree as a basketball force for Ohio State, a football school (football pronounced like you would if you were holding a dead rat), was a slap in the face.

Their program recovered nicely, however, and Sean Miller and his successor Chris Mack have continued rolling along, making the NCAA tournament almost every single year. In the 2017-18 season, Xavier is again one of the best teams in the country, dropping 85 points a game with star senior Trevon Bluiett leading the way in a tough-ish conference.

The Cincinnati Bearcats have two national titles from the 1960s (where they victimized Ohio State two years in a row in the championship game), but after that they kind of fell into irrelevance until former Ohio State assistant coach Bob Huggins took over. I grew up cheering for Huggins and Cincinnati, in part because I liked that his teams were often cobbled together with twine and JUCO transfers, and also because they won a lot. Huggins made one Final Four in 1992 and would've won a national championship in 2000 if fate hadn't decided to break Kenyon Martin's leg in half at the very end of the season.

After Huggins was unceremoniously bounced from his head coaching position in 2005, I wasn't confident that UC could maintain a winning posture, but I'll be damned if Mick Cronin didn't figure it out. Cronin is a five foot seven Cincinnati kid who grew up on the west wide and is an alumnus of UC. He's got over 250 wins, he's only 46 years old, and he beat back a freaking aneurysm.

Cincinnati won 30 games last season and has a 15-2 record already. They have a ton of good players, but their real talent, as it's often been under Cronin, is defense. The Bearcats rank 2nd in the country in points allowed, but lost the Crosstown Shootout this season and still have to play Wichita State twice before the end of the year.

To sum up: there are three major Ohio colleges in the Top 25 of college basketball. Two have long and storied histories of success, particularly in the past 30 years. The third has a rookie coach who has so far gone way beyond what most people would've expected in his first season.

All three programs have the potential to win the NCAA tournament; they're led by good coaching, have rabid fanbases, get ample television time, and have good facilities. All three programs also lack the cache of a Kentucky or a Kansas or a Duke, and while it's tempting to hope and expect a Thad Matta 2006 recruiting class every season, it's also probably not likely.

This is all a nice way of saying that Ohio State, despite our protestations to the contrary, is not guaranteed the niceties that Duke is. The Buckeyes and the Musketeers and the Bearcats need to take advantage of their mutual success and build off it. The home-and-home between Ohio State and Cincinnati starting next season is a great starting point, but it can't end there.

These three schools need to schedule each other early and often every season; Ohio State would benefit by being able to make inroads in southwestern Ohio recruiting, and Xavier and Cincinnati would benefit by being able to use the Big Ten's media reach to raise their profile. Ohio basketball as a brand is a good one, but it has a terrible marketing department. It's time to combine the powers of the best programs into a Captain Planet/Voltron/Megazord to take college basketball by storm.

Rivalries are fun. Cincinnati and Xavier have been able to sustain a great one by managing to stay relevant as basketball programs and not letting scheduling slip up during several conference changes. The Buckeyes now have an opportunity to get involved, and while it's going to be weird to hope that Cincinnati basketball does anything other than exist (I promise that Bearcat basketball fans are way less insufferable than their football counterparts), linking these three teams would be great for them individually and for Ohio as a whole.

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