Last Saturday, I attended a South Carolina game against Ohio State. With both schools above the Red Line, this game did not count. Yet it had the look and feel of a mid-major against a major opponent. With South Carolina fans spoiled by football and baseball success, few chose to come to watch the lowly basketball team play. But in their place were several thousand fans from Ohio State. The Buckeye fans engaged in hostile behavior, starting team chants outside the arena before the game and continuing on through the game, shouting down Gamecock fans when they tried to get a cheer going. Ohio State fans behaved in the way that turns many of us off to the game above the Red Line. They walked around the court before the game taking cell phone pictures of their heroes, players they are only accustomed to seeing on TV and will leave school as soon as the NBA comes calling. They acted like it was their own home game, yet were playing eight hours south of campus. I have seen mid-majors host big teams before, but South Carolina is not a mid-major, yet their arena was taken over by another school. How could any school bring such a huge following many miles away? Ohio State is also a football school despite their recent basketball success.
The reason that Ohio State can bring in such a large fan base everywhere is because their large alumni network has convinced the rest of Ohio that the Buckeyes are Ohio. And Ohio is a very large state, stretching from two large cities in Cincinnati and Cleveland with OSU's home of Columbus in the middle. Or as they are often referred to as, rather tOSU since they are TheOhio State University. The word The is very important. Ohio has other large state schools such as Akron, Miami, Bowling Green, Toledo, Kent State, and Cincinnati. But only OSU can be The Ohio State University. The Buckeyes' signature chant is "O-H! I-O!", and they are introduced with flags that spell out "Ohio". Never mind that there actually is another Division I state school 80 miles to the southeast that is actually called Ohio University, Ohio State thinks that they are indeed the state of Ohio.
My mom grew up in suburban Cleveland, where Ohio State would get more press coverage than the four large Division I schools actually in Northeast Ohio. My mom would attend Division III Baldwin-Wallace before going to grad school at Bowling Green, where she resented the preferential treatment Ohio State's grad school programs got from the state government out of Columbus. But some of my mom's nephews identify with Ohio State, even though they never attended school there. To them, rooting for Ohio State is rooting for Ohio. Only one problem: there are a dozen other Division I schools in Ohio. Ohio State's primary dominance of the state is in football, where they have not lost to an in-state opponent in over 80 years now. And yet many of the other major Ohio schools emphasize football over basketball as well. The only exceptions to this are Cincinnati, Dayton, Xavier, and Cleveland State. But those teams do not command the same loyal statewide fan base the Buckeyes do. Thus, while Ohio has many Division I schools, the mid-majors have a lot of catching up to do, chiefly the MAC, which aside from Kent State and Ohio has struggled quite a bit in recent years.
This statewide fanbase phenomenon is one reason that I resent Ohio State and all other super major-conference schools. Ohio State and Ohio are not alone in this phenomenon either. UConn dominates Connecticut, Kentucky dominates Kentucky, and Kansas dominates Kansas. Even in North Carolina, with several major programs, UNC dominates the state as well. This goes against the appeal of college sports for me, where you root for local teams and principally the school you actually attended. Ohio State is a very large school, but the majority of Ohio students do not attend Ohio State. But schools above the Red Line seem to draw fans the way pro sports do, and that is through television contracts and the focus is making money. So that is why I and other readers of this site like mid-major basketball best. It is basketball that you can attend locally and for an affordable price.
So when I looked at the schedule for games in Ohio when visting my mom's family, I was disappointed to see that teams like Ohio, Kent State, and Akron did not have home games tonight. The only game available within range was Ohio State in Columbus, taking on one of the "other" schools in Ohio, Miami University. This game at least had the appeal of being a family event. My dad did attend grad school at Ohio State, although he has stronger loyalties with Southern Illinois, where he got his bachelor's and master's degrees. My parents also met while teaching in the early 1980s at a satellite school of Miami located in Hamilton just north of Cincinnati and south of the main MU campus in Oxford.
So after driving over 300 miles from North Carolina where we had been to High Point the night before, we finally made it to Columbus. But this game would not be at THE Ohio State University, but rather at Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus. The Buckeyes would not have any students on campus anyway, so they could schedule a game at the home of the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets to be eligible to host NCAA Tournament games come March. The last time I went to a game above the Red Line not at South Carolina, NC State moved the game from a NHL arena they normally play at to an on-campus facility. Tonight Ohio State did the exact opposite. The arena is not very conducive to basketball, as the sightlines from where I was sitting in the club seats behind the basket were well removed from the court. Down low it would be even worse, with no seat close to the court since hockey rinks demand more space than basketball courts and take away seating. But when you can sell alcohol off-campus as well as luxury suites, there is far more money to be made hosting the NCAA Tournament at Nationwide Arena even though Ohio State's Schottenstein Center seats only slightly less. And to host the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State would have to have the Buckeyes use the arena in December.
It was a very different atmosphere than when the Buckeyes played at South Carolina five days earlier. Most of the fans there were transplanted Ohioans living in SC who are loyal to their home state and its big university despite the strong willingness of Ohioans to leave the state. But in Columbus, Nationwide Arena is very much a Sports Bubble place. It was built not just to host the Blue Jackets but also other special events, and the purpose of the downtown arena is to make money from people attending sporting events and concerts. Suites, skyboxes, and other luxury amenities are installed to entertain the rich while pushing the middle class into the rafters. What you are allowed to do is tightly guarded by numerous security personnel and ushers protecting corporate interests. I could not bring a second camera lens to the arena like I normally do to take wide pictures of the arena, even though the NHL's Blue Jackets do permit them as per their policy on the arena website. I still got good pictures of the game and took some wide angle pictures with my phone. But pretty soon, the Sports Bubble will not let you take your phone with you, as many newer phones can capture HD video that could be posted to YouTube. The image and marketing is very tightly controlled in these arenas, with naming rights bought by giant insurance companies.
And then the Ohio State fans in the arena were much more subdued than their fellow Buckeyes in South Carolina. Miami was just another guarantee game opponent, and the fans did some cheering, but never got as loud as when they played eight hours away.
The game itself pretty much went as expected. The RedHawks knew they could not get inside even with solid play from Julian Mavunga, as there is no way they could post up on NBA prospect Jared Sullinger. So if Miami would stay in the game, they would like many other mid-majors have to knock down their outside shots. But the RedHawks were cold all game long, going 2-for-14 behind the arc. The Buckeye offense also faltered late in the first half, and the RedHawks cut the lead to 26-19 early in the second half. After that, things would get out of hand as Ohio State did hit their shots and quickly ran away with the game. Ohio State's lead grew quickly to 28 points with nine minutes to play, and Miami just barely had 40 points for the whole game as the Buckeyes prevailed 69-40, winning yet another guarantee game.
It is good to go to a major-conference game every once in a while, to see how the other half lives. But when basketball picks up again next week, I will look forward to once again enjoying the simple life of mid-major basketball. And I hope to see Ohio embrace mid-major basketball as well. Dayton already has, and hopefully the eastern Ohio schools will follow. A state as large as Ohio deserves a competitive mid-major program that fans can get behind, and not root for a college team just because it is the popular thing to do.
at OHIO STATE 69, MIAMI (OH.) 40 12/22/2011
MIAMI (OH.) 3-7 (0-0) -- J. Cadougan 6-11 2-2 15; J. Mavunga 8-14 4-5 20; J. Harris 0-7 0-0 0; J. Sewell 1-4 2-2 4; B. Sullivan 3-5 0-0 8; D. McGhee 2-5 0-0 4; Q. Rollins 1-2 0-0 2; W. Sullivan 0-1 0-0 0; A. Thomas 0-3 2-2 2; V. Legarza 0-2 0-0 0; J. Tadlock 0-3 0-0 0; J. Mezher 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-46 8-9 40. OHIO STATE 12-1 (0-0) -- W. Buford 8-16 1-1 18; D. Thomas 7-14 0-0 15; A. Craft 2-4 0-1 4; J. Sullinger 3-9 5-6 11; L. Smith Jr. 1-1 0-0 3; S. Thompson 1-1 1-2 3; E. Ravenel 2-3 0-1 4; S. Scott 0-1 0-0 0; J. Sibert 0-3 2-2 2; A. Williams 0-0 0-0 0; J. Weatherspoon 1-3 2-2 4; L. Ross 1-3 2-2 5. Totals 26-58 13-17 69.
Three-point goals: MIO 2-14 (J. Mavunga 0-2; A. Thomas 0-1; J. Harris 0-6; B. Sullivan 2-2; W. Sullivan 0-1; J. Tadlock 0-2), OHST 4-15 (W. Buford 1-3; A. Craft 0-1; J. Sibert 0-2; L. Smith Jr. 1-1; D. Thomas 1-4; S. Scott 0-1; L. Ross 1-3); Rebounds: MIO 32 (J. Mavunga 10), OHST 30 (J. Sullinger 6); Assists: MIO 5 (J. Mavunga 1), OHST 18 (A. Craft 8); Total Fouls -- MIO 20, OHST 12; Fouled Out: MIO-D. McGhee; OHST-None.