CLEVELAND — The hallowed basketball state of Indiana is sputtering to the end of a blasphemous season, as none of its 10 Division I programs figure to qualify for next week’s NCAA tournament.
Indiana’s neighbor to the east is spinning a much different tale.
Ohio could deliver as many as five teams to the 68-team field, matching its total from 2009 when the Heart of It All was the most represented state in the union. Two of its Mid-American Conference representatives, the University of Toledo and Akron, will play semifinal games today at Quicken Loans Arena in pursuit of the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Long recognized for its football fervor, Ohio has somewhat quietly emerged as a hardwood heavyweight, housing formidable programs in all six of the conferences of which it’s affiliated. Of the state’s 13 D-I programs, an astounding nine achieved 20 wins this year, the most to reach the arbitrary measurement of success since at least the turn of the century. Indiana has two.
Cincinnati and Ohio State are locks for the NCAA tournament, and two others, Dayton and Xavier, are purportedly on the right side of the bubble. Wright State squandered a berth this week when it stumbled at home to Milwaukee in the Horizon League final.
Should Akron upend top-seed Western Michigan and Toledo take down Eastern Michigan today , the MAC will feature an All-Ohio final for the fifth year in a row on Saturday.
“If you’re asking me if I think it’s better this year than it’s been in the past, I don’t really get into that analysis,” said Akron coach Keith Dambrot, whose fourth-seeded Zips beat Ohio on Thursday. “I think it’s always good.”
Over a 15-year period, Ohio has averaged six 20-win teams and a shade more than three tournament participants. The nine 20-game winners and possible five NCAA participants of this year represents the high point in that sample.
Only Toledo, Bowling Green, and Youngstown State have not made the tournament since 2000. Youngstown State and Miami, the latter playing difficult non-conference schedules under the late former coach Charlie Coles, have not reached 20 wins.
Battles for Ohio high school talent are getting “overcrowded,” says recruiting analyst John Stovall.
“Since 2010 there has been five straight years of good to great classes,” said Stovall, who publishes the magazine Prep Spotlight and also works for ESPN. “2015 and ’16 should continue that trend. The state is being recruited very heavily.”
Dambrot, despite a resume boasting seven consecutive MAC title game appearances, says recruiting in Ohio “is a hard business, as simple as that.”
Four Ohioans were named All-MAC this week, including first-team selection Demetrius Treadwell, a Euclid native averaging 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds for Akron. His teammate, Waverly’s Jake Kretzer, was the league’s sixth man of the year, an award won in the Horizon League by Cleveland State’s Jon Harris (Twinsburg).
Ohio State, the fifth seed in the Big Ten, claims Aaron Craft, the Liberty-Benton product tabbed his conference’s defensive player of the year.
Xavier, the third seed in the Big East, is led in scoring by Cincinnati product Semaj Christon. Jordan Sibert, another Cincinnati native, is Dayton’s top scorer.
“When you’re dealing with high school basketball in this state you’re dealing with unbelievable traditions,” said Dayton’s Archie Miller, whose team carried the fifth seed into the Atlantic 10. “The high school coaching is excellent. As good as anywhere in the country.”
Toledo’s Tod Kowalczyk agrees, calling northwest Ohio coaches Ed Heintschel (St. John’s Jesuit), Jim Welling (Central Catholic), Dave Boyce (Perrysburg), Stan Joplin (Springfield), and John Lindsay (Ottawa Hills) “tremendous high school coaches that have built programs the right way.”
Recruiting against his Ohio brethren is a challenge for Kowalczyk. Trying to schedule them, in many cases, is an exercise in futility.
The state’s big four — Ohio State, Cincinnati, Xavier, and Dayton — won’t play Toledo in a home-and-home arrangement, Kowalczyk says. Neither will Wright State. The Rockets have faced Cleveland State the last three seasons and will again in 2014-15.
Miller called a suggestion of a tournament featuring Ohio teams “a great idea” but an unlikely initiative over differing agendas and philosophies among coaches.
“I’d do it,” Kowalczyk said. “But the problem in those tournaments is who hosts it, who gets the money? Ohio State, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Xavier aren’t giving up home games for a tournament like that. They’re not going to give up revenue.”
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