LOS ANGELES — When Ohio State plays Arizona in a regional semifinal Thursday night at the Staples Center, the matchup will be clear cut.
Football school vs. basketball school.
It’s just how it is, the same way fans of Michigan, Nebraska, or (insert SEC school) live for fall Saturdays at colossal stadiums built by decades of tradition while those in Kansas and North Carolina long for winter. Success in one sport is often at the expense of the other.
Yet at OSU, an envied phenomenon continues to gain strength. Both revenue sports are winning big.
In fact, no tandem wins more.
Ohio State’s combined 311-78 record in football and basketball during the past eight seasons — a .799 winning percentage — leads the nation by a wide margin.
Florida, which beat OSU in the championship game for both sports during the 2006-2007 season, is second with a 303-96 record (.759).
Operating in the outsized shadow of the Buckeyes’ football Goliath, ninth-year coach Thad Matta has guided a basketball program that experienced off-and-on success in the century-plus preceding him — including a run of four Final Four trips and a national title in the 1960s — to its most sustained run yet.
Ohio State is making its seventh NCAA tournament appearance in eight years and stands as the nation’s only team in the Sweet 16 for a fourth straight season.
If the Buckeyes like their chances against Arizona in football, they are also the conservative pick on the hardwood. Second-seeded OSU (28-7) opened as a 3½-point favorite against the No. 6-seeded Wildcats (27-7).
Football school? Yes, and proud of it.
“People try to negative recruit you from that standpoint,” OSU associate head basketball coach Jeff Boals said. “But I always tell people if going to two Final Fours [since 2007], playing in the national championship [game], winning five out of the last eight Big Ten regular-season championships, and sending multiple guys to the NBA, if that’s a football school, we’ll take that every day of the week.”
So how has Ohio State built a hoops program with staying power in a football world? How has it done what gridiron giants like Alabama, Florida State, Miami, Oklahoma, Penn State, Southern California, and Texas have not?
There are untold factors, but the biggest are Matta — who was hired from Xavier in 2004 — and the school’s desire to win.
Ohio State made the major commitments that Matta told athletic director Gene Smith the Buckeyes required to be nationally competitive, including higher pay for assistant coaches and a new practice facility. Construction is under way on a training complex that will be the first in the country to provide separate, dedicated practice gyms for the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
OSU opened its wallet to keep Matta, who is signed through 2019 with a $3.2 million annual salary that ranks second in the Big Ten behind Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and seventh nationally.
As for the titan across the street, OSU basketball players and coaches universally embraced the football team’s success. While their program is a distant No. 2 for most Buckeyes fans — there is no secret which sport accounted for most of the athletic department’s conference-high $142 million in revenue last year — they value the exposure football provides.
A football program is the front porch to the university for many basketball recruits, too.
Guard Aaron Craft, a Findlay native, said he first became an OSU fan because of football. So did sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross growing up in ... Jackson, Miss.
“I was never an Ohio State basketball fan, but I knew about Troy Smith and Beanie Wells and those guys here,” Ross said. “I watched them a lot. It was just a team I liked.”
Like many basketball prospects, he took his recruiting visit to Ohio State on a football weekend. The impression the game left was familiar.
“You see how excited [the recruits] get, seeing how fun the atmosphere is, getting the chance to meet those guys,” senior forward Evan Ravenel said.
Added Boals: “It's a huge benefit to have a football team at Ohio State that's very successful. We utilize it for our huge recruiting weekends. Any time you can bring recruits in on a football weekend and show the support of Buckeye Nation when you have 106,000 in one place and probably another 100,000 outside, it’s beneficial.”
As usual, OSU is now enjoying the March rewards.
Contact David Briggs at:firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.