COLUMBUS -- Just like the winter that wasn't, few could have forecast the sports-season switcheroo that has seen Ohio -- for this week anyway -- become better known for basketball than for football.
For the first time in NCAA tournament history, one state -- this state -- has put four teams into the Sweet 16. Joining No. 2 seed Ohio State is No. 6 seed Cincinnati, which will be the Buckeyes' opponent in Thursday's regional semifinal in Boston. Ohio University is joining the party too, as a No. 13 seed facing No. 1 North Carolina on Friday in St. Louis. Not to be overlooked, No. 10 Xavier plays No. 3 Baylor on Friday in Atlanta.
Those toy miniature footballs that some hospitals stick in the cribs of Ohio newborns? Maybe they should be orange and round instead? After all, the Buckeye State is being billed by national media as a basketball behemoth.
Gregg Doyel, national columnist for cbssports.com, is impressed with the four Ohio coaches.
"Ohio's showing in the tournament underscores [the state's] great collection of coaches: Thad Matta's a future Hall of Famer, Mick Cronin and Chris Mack are near the best in their leagues, and John Groce, well, I don't know how high his ceiling is -- but it's way up there,' Doyel said.
Dan Wetzel, national sports columnist for yahoo.com, commented on Ohio being a hotbed for basketball talent: 17 players from the four remaining state teams are from Ohio.
Ohio remains a football-first state, but it also owns a rich basketball heritage. The state dominated the college game from 1959 to 1963, when Cincinnati appeared in five consecutive Final Fours, winning twice (against Ohio State in 1961 and 1962). The Buckeyes won the 1960 national title and appeared in the Final Four in 1968. Dayton lost to UCLA in the 1967 national championship game and won two NIT titles during the 1960s. Xavier has reached the Sweet 16 in four of the last five seasons.
The current postseason began here too, with Dayton hosting the first NCAA tournament games -- dubbed the First Four -- that tipped off last Tuesday and Wednesday in University of Dayton Arena. Then Nationwide Arena housed second and third-round games over the weekend.
President Obama even turned up in Dayton to catch the action, proving that Ohio not only is a swing state, but also a string state, with NCAA basketball netting much of the headlines. Ohio advanced as many teams this far as any conference.
And they are loving it in Columbus, Athens, and Cincinnati, where fans of the four teams are enjoying their good fortune.
"I think over the last 10 to 15 years, Ohio State basketball is getting better," said Andy Hayes, a Buckeyes fan and owner at Hucklebuck Design Studio in Columbus.
"But it's hard to believe, isn't it," Hayes said, referring to the state being the center of the college basketball universe. "I think it's attributable to the Midwest work ethic. And the talent pool is obviously huge.''
The Buckeyes' chances?
"Good, as long as they run it through Sullinger and he's not forcing shots," Hayes said.
In Athens, Ohio fans are celebrating the school's first Sweet 16 appearance since 1964.
"Bobcat fever is going crazy," said Richard Zippert, owner of the Cat's Eye Saloon in Athens, a longtime Ohio University watering hole that was only tamed during the Bobcats' win against South Florida on Sunday because the majority of students are on spring break, where some undoubtedly are wearing MichiGone T-shirts in response to the Bobcats' second-round win against Michigan.
Ohio University alumni and fans bristle when Michigan football coach Brady Hoke and basketball coach John Beilein refer to Ohio State as Ohio, which the Bobcats' faithful consider a slight to their school. How mixed up would those Michigan coaches be if Ohio played Ohio in the Final Four?
Not even Wolverines can confuse Cincinnati and Xavier for Ohio State or Ohio, though the two Queen City schools may be mistaken for heavyweights of another sort. In December, the rivals played a game that ended in a brawl, but recovered their seasons to make it to the Sweet 16.
"If you had polled everyone early on and asked them if they expected to be here, they'd have said they were just happy to get into the tournament,' said B.J. Hayley, owner of Dana Gardens bar, a Xavier institution since 1938. "It's a great thing for Ohio, and if you want to take it further, we have another three Sweet 16 schools [Kentucky, Louisville, and Indiana] within 150 miles of us."
Matta's history with Xavier -- he coached the Musketeers from 2001-2004 -- is just one of several links among the four schools; Ohio's Groce was an assistant under Matta at Ohio State and Xavier.
All those connections will come out this week as the national media move in to cover the Ohio Four. Football will have to wait.
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