You've heard of Christmas in July, but for Ohio State basketball fans, it was more like March in July at Capital University on Saturday afternoon.
A collection of Thad Matta's best players to ever take the court at Ohio State were in action wearing the school colors in Bexley, Ohio, just a 20-minute drive from the Schottenstein Center where they made a name for themselves as Buckeyes. In front of around 2,000 fans wearing the scarlet and gray, a team of the same name gave them plenty to cheer about.
With their former coach in attendance, team Scarlet & Gray rolled to a 99-68 victory in the first round of The Basketball Tournament, while a majority of the current Ohio State team watched from the student section that is normally reserved to cheer for them in the winter months.
The likes of Michael Redd, Clark Kellogg, Terrence Dials, Matt Terwilliger and others watched from the bleachers as well, as Ohio State legends past, present and future all congregated for what ended up being a celebration of Buckeye hoops just a short drive from where they all established themselves as basketball heroes in Columbus.
While the opponent for Scarlet & Gray was vastly inferior to the Buckeye all-star squad, the electric play of the former Ohio State players left even them with the question everyone asks themselves at some point in their life: What if?
"Playing with Jared (Sullinger), it is kind of like, 'What if I would have stayed at Ohio State?'" said Byron Mullens, who played just one season with the Buckeyes in 2008-09. "I am enjoying playing with these guys, getting back with them and bringing back some memories."
Bringing back memories is exactly what Scarlet & Gray did on Saturday. Jon Diebler connected on a number of deep three-point shots. Sullinger dominated the post, scoring 20 points in just 18 minutes of action. Aaron Craft and David Lighty were pests on the defensive end, collecting five steals between the two of them.
The game was in hand by halftime, as Scarlet & Gray jumped out to a 55-30 lead heading into the locker room. With the game all but decided, head coach Scoonie Penn was able to empty his bench and let the premier Buckeye legends watch the majority of the fourth quarter from the sideline and take in the spectacle that was unfolding in front of them.
Matta, who coached eight of the 11 players Scarlet & Gray dressed on Saturday, received a standing ovation from the crowd congregated at Capital University as he descended from his VIP box to the court for a fourth-quarter interview with ESPN.
The members of Scarlet & Gray joined in the ovation, paying homage to their coach who led them to a pair of Final Fours in 2007 and 2012. Sullinger, a Columbus native who played two years under Matta at Ohio State, made sure he took in as much of the afternoon as he could.
"Coach Matta is like an ambassador to the guys who are on this team. He welcomes everybody with open arms, and that's family," Sullinger said. "It was good to see him on the sidelines.
"When we were running out, I kind of got chills. It was like, 'Damn. We are playing in front of the hometown again.' You see all this scarlet and gray, you see the student section," he added. "You don't get that (anymore). You don't get a student section going crazy. Our fans are crazy and we love it."
Ohio State fans will get one more chance to watch their former Buckeyes in action in their hometown on Sunday, as Scarlet & Gray is set to play Texas Tech alumni, The Matadors, at Capital University at 2 p.m. for the chance to advance to the Super 16 of The Basketball Tournament.
Last season, Scarlet & Gray advanced to the final four of the tournament, only to lose in double overtime. With the additions of Mullens and Penn State alum Talor Battle, Scarlet & Gray appears to have one of, if not the, best team in the tournament. Penn, who is Ohio State's director of player development in addition to the head coach of Scarlet & Gray, said he believes his alumni squad is the best in the field.
"I don't think there was a team more talented than us last year, but you have to play the game," Penn said. "I think we have some additions and we remain talented. We have a chance of something special."
If Scarlet & Gray can indeed take home the $2 million prize that comes with winning The Basketball Tournament, it will not only be a success for the individuals on the team, but also for Ohio State basketball, which is turning the page from the Matta era to the Chris Holtmann era.
With members of the current team cheering on the alumni Saturday, and with the success both teams are having, it is clear that Ohio State basketball is not only back, but should be here to stay in one shape or another.
"The buzz was electric and a lot of people wanted to come watch and be a part of it. We had guys from every generation, the last, I don't know how many decades come in here to support," Penn said. "That just shows the bond that we have within our program and I just think that is going to continue to grow and get stronger.
"I think our program took a hit the last few years with a downward slide, but we have a bunch of people that are around and looking to resurrect it and pull it back up," Penn added. "It's not just about the guys in the program now, it's about all of us who have played for the program who will always be a part of it. That stuff is special and I think today's crowd showed that to the fullest."