BUFFALO, N.Y. — The last time Ohio State’s basketball team played at the University of Toledo, the biggest crowd in 35 years shook Savage Arena and Little Brother roared.
"It was something special," former Rockets coach Stan Joplin said of that 1998 night. "Our guys will remember that for the rest of their lives."
The Buckeyes remembered, too.
Their NCAA tournament opener against 11th-seeded Dayton today at the First Niagara Center will present a rare treat for Ohio hoops fans.
Since Toledo stunned the Final Four-bound Buckeyes 64-63 on Dec. 5, 1998, OSU has not lost to an in-state opponent — in part because they have avoided the best of them.
Flagship powers across the country increasingly view games against mid-major in-state rivals as lose-lose scenarios — see: Kansas’ refusal to play Wichita State — and OSU is no different. The Buckeyes have played only 14 games against Ohio opponents since the trip to the Glass City, with today’s game just their second brush with Dayton in 26 years. Their last meeting also came via the whims of March in the 2008 NIT quarterfinals.
Joplin, now the boys basketball coach at Springfield, said he understands Ohio State has "nothing to gain" from such games. The Buckeyes are expected to beat even basketball schools like Dayton or Xavier or Cincinnati — a program they have met once in the regular season since 1962. OSU athletics is the kingfish with endless resources, banking $123.6 million in revenue last year, according to federal records. By comparison, Dayton pulled in $21.3 million.
"Everyone understands in the state of Ohio what it's about in that state," Flyers coach Archie Miller said Wednesday. "That's Columbus. That's a powerful, powerful place."
Miller added: "Everybody would love to play [Ohio State]. Everybody would love an opportunity to play them. They're not going to get that opportunity, though. In this day and age with college basketball and scheduling, it's just not possible."
Back in 1998, the Rockets saw Ohio State’s visit as the opportunity of their careers.
Former Buckeyes coach Randy Ayers had scheduled a two-for-one series — two games in Columbus, one in Toledo — as a favor to St. John’s Jesuit graduate Neshaun Coleman, and the homecoming promised to be sweet. Behind stars Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd, OSU would go on to win 27 games and advance to the national semifinals.
But Toledo conceded nothing. At the time, big man Greg Stempin and the Rockets were in the middle of an 8-0 start that included wins over Dayton and Xavier.
"We had things rolling," said Brett Fedak, then a senior forward. "We felt that year we could compete with just about anybody if we had them on our home court."
On that December night, they did. After the game was delayed about 10 minutes for the smoke from pregame fireworks to clear, the two schools were near equals. The crowd of 9,228 grew louder and hoarser as the possibilities became apparent.
"We really fed off that atmosphere in the crowd," said Chad Kamstra, a junior guard. "When you’re playing a team like that, you hang in early, and the confidence just grows. You believe more and more."
Rockets freshman Robierre Cullars drove for the game-winning score with 5.7 seconds left, and UT students flooded the court.
Ohio State coach Jim O’Brien, meanwhile, steamed. He had inherited the schedule made by Ayers, and vowed never to enter another in-state tinderbox again.
Ohio State has not. Matta is fine with a rare home or neutral-site game against an Ohio school, but will not play a true road contest. Home games pay the bills while, even in a two-for-one arrangement, the Buckeyes and other power programs have everything to lose by playing an in-state, mid-major opponent in its home gym.
"I think in terms of nonconference scheduling, as a coach, you can't win," Matta said. "I mean, you play one team, and people complain about it. Then you play this team, and then they complain that you don't play this team."
For the players on the 1998-99 Rockets, who finished 19-9 and 11-7 in the Mid-American Conference, the new reality stings. The biggest win of their college careers marked the end of an era.
"That night was just great," Joplin said. "The atmosphere, that’s what college basketball was all about. Being a mid-major and having the number one school in the state coming to your place and then winning, it was incredible."