Ohio State Can't Forget That Their Eternal Rival Plays a Little Basketball Too

By Johnny Ginter on February 1, 2019 at 10:20 am
Ohio State and Michigan basketball players get tangled up
© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Since Eleven Warriors is a serious website about serious things for serious people, I'm going to momentarily step back from using The Simpsons to make points about college sports and instead use The Office to make points about college sports.

Okay, so replace "Toby" with "Michigan football," "bin Laden" with "Penn State wrestling," and "Hitler" with "Michigan men's basketball."

My guess is that most Ohio State fans would be perfectly okay with this analogy, for two reasons. First, men's basketball just doesn't take the kind of precedence in the overall Sports Attention Hierarchy that football does. Which is fine: football is the more popular sport in general, and therefore beating the Wolverines in said sport is probably more important to most people.

But that gets me to reason number two, which is that it's easier to pay more attention to the sport in which your favorite football team is emptying round after round of hot searing lead from its six-shooter into the fetid equine form that is your most hated rival.

For the past literal generation, Ohio State has humiliated Michigan on the gridiron in almost every way possible. We've had a lot of laughs, shared some tears, flipped the bird a couple of times, and basically pushed the Wolverines into national football irrelevance more times than I can count. Actually, I totally can count how many times. It's 18. 18 times.

So that's fun, but if Ohio State truly wants to fulfil its destiny as the watchers on the wall, guarding against the encroachment of Maize and Blue death from up north, then that means dominating at both major revenue sports. And it is there that we are failing.

On March 10th, 2012, Thad Matta's 7th ranked Buckeye crew led by Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft just absolutely beat the hell out of John Beilein's 10th ranked Michigan squad in the Big Ten Tournament, 77-55. Beilein had had a couple of decent seasons as Michigan's head coach to that point, but that was the kind of statement game that showed that Matta and the Buckeyes were still easily the class of the Big Ten.

Well, Matta is gone, and so is that sense of superiority. Since that victory, Ohio State is 5-7 against their archrivals, and in the meantime Beilein has transformed the Wolverines into one of the best and most consistent programs in the Big Ten and possibly the country, making the Final Four twice and the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight once apiece. He has scraped together a functioning, consistently successful basketball machine in Tom Izzo's backyard while also dealing with the Buckeyes at his doorstep. It's a pretty amazing accomplishment.

You might say that's an overreaction to Tuesday's pretty awful loss to the Wolverines, and you might not be wrong.

But I would also point out that Ohio State hasn't beaten a ranked Michigan team on the court in six years and counting. In football, that'd be unacceptable, because Michigan is the metric by which coaches are eventually measured, no matter how successful you might be otherwise.

That's not the case for Ohio State basketball coaches. Yet.

Chris Holtmann probably doesn't need to put a clock in the Schott counting down to the next Michigan game. He also probably doesn't need to run special Michigan drills or play Hail to the Victors while screaming at his blindfolded players as they attempt to navigate an obstacle course of broken glass and barbed wire.

But what really makes the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry personally important to his job security is proximity.

The Midwest has a ton of basketball talent, and while Ohio itself can be hit or miss depending on the year, the more competition that Holtmann faces on a regular basis for homegrown talent, the more difficult it will be to secure the next Luke Kennard or (a more likely and relevant type of player) the next Trey Burke.

The siren isn't going off quite yet. Chris Holtmann is a talented coach who has shown that he can win in Columbus, but he's starting a lap behind a Michigan program that's been able to show out in the Big Ten and in the NCAA tournament with a startling consistency. He needs to prove that he can coach the Buckeyes to the same kind of heights that Beilein has been able to take his team, because the absolute last thing that Holtmann or any of us wants (for our sanity) is to allow That Team Up North to become That Basketball Team Up North, holding the Sword of Damocles over the heads of the Buckeyes and laughing just as hard as we do every November.

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