Cinderella is sitting this one out and the 2012 NCAA Final Four has taken on airs.
With Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas and Ohio State descending on the Louisiana Superdome, an aura of college basketball royalty surrounds Saturday’s semifinals and Monday’s championship.
One style of T-shirt being sold for each school on NCAA.com has a “Here We Go Again” theme, listing the team’s Final Four appearances. Their total of 49 seems staggering.
Kentucky leads the way with 15, followed by Kansas (14), Ohio State (11) and Louisville (9). Surprisingly, the Buckeyes’ list includes 1999, which was vacated because of NCAA violations. (That’s either a major gaffe or the two-faced NCAA turning the other cheek when marketing dollars are involved.)
But when it comes to hoops history, no one outside our borders may mention Ohio State in the same breath as the others.
Only three of OSU’s Final Four appearances (in ’99, 2007 and this year) have come since the 1960s. Kansas has been to 10 Final Fours in that span; Kentucky, nine; and Louisville, eight. Kentucky is making its sixth trip in 20 seasons; Kansas, its sixth in 22 seasons.
All four schools have their legends. In its ledger, Kansas boasts Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning and Dr. James Naismith, founder of the game first played with peach baskets. Kentucky has Adolph Rupp and his runts, the Twin Towers and Ashley Judd. Louisville touts Denny Crum, the Doctors of Dunk and Never Nervous Pervis. Ohio State lauds Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Thad Matta.
But save for Greg Oden and Mike Conley’s heyday in 2007 and the miracles made by Mike Redd and Scoonie Penn in 1999, Ohio State’s Final Four memories are tinged in sepia.
An NCAA title, which would be only Ohio State’s second and its first since 1960, would restore the Buckeyes to the status of college basketball royalty they enjoyed in the ’40s and ’60s.
There’s no doubt Matta’s peers know what he’s accomplished in his eight years at OSU, where he’s won 77.5 percent of his games. During an NCAA conference call Monday, Louisville coach Rick Pitino gave Matta his due, even though Pitino acknowledged most don’t remember OSU’s glory days.
“There are four schools here you would put in the top 10 traditions of all time, without question,” Pitino said. “A lot of people don’t realize Ohio State’s. We know their recent success, but you don’t realize going back how successful they were.
“It is four programs that have tremendous interest in the game of basketball. Certainly, Kansas, Louisville and Kentucky, the fever pitch for basketball has always been off the charts. It’s something that kids when they grow up understand it. Ohio State, back when Lucas and those guys played, they were at its best and have great tradition. Now Thad Matta in recent years, they’ve got it back to where they’re a top five, top seven program every year.”
While his program has reached national prominence in the rankings, Matta is still fighting for supremacy within his own state and city. That fever pitch for basketball in Kentucky and Kansas might not ever extend to Ohio, where there are six professional teams and football is king. Even if the Buckeyes were to win multiple national titles under Matta, kids who venture outside to play might still dream of being the next Troy Smith, not the next Jared Sullinger.
But Matta is making inroads.
When he arrived at Ohio State in 2004, Value City Arena wasn’t considered an intimidating place to play.
The seats had to be reconfigured, putting more students near the floor, to help in that regard. The student section took on the moniker of the “The Nut House” just a few years ago.
While much is made of the lineup of lottery picks Kentucky trots out, Matta has shown he can recruit NBA-caliber talent with Conley, Evan Turner, Kosta Koufos, Daequan Cook and Byron Mullens playing in the league and Oden hoping to return from a career-threatening injury.
The university believes there’s been enough of a frenzy stirred over this trip to the Final Four that it is staging a sendoff for the Buckeyes on Wednesday evening.
Fans are encouraged to line the sidewalks from High and Woodruff to High and West 11th as the team bus heads to the airport between 5:15 and 5:30 p.m.
But a note in OSU’s media advisory showed just how far there is to go before the basketball Bucks reign supreme. “Rain or shine, fans are encouraged to bring signs and wear scarlet and gray,” the news release said.
Followers of the Cardinals, Wildcats or Jayhawks wouldn’t need such instruction. But in Columbus, there might be just as much interest in new football coach Urban Meyer’s first spring practice on Wednesday.
With Sullinger, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, William Buford and Lenzelle Smith Jr., the Buckeyes have the firepower to come home with the trophy. First up on Saturday night is Kansas, which defeated OSU 78-67 on Dec. 10 in Allen Fieldhouse, when Sullinger was sidelined with back spasms. Then Kentucky or Louisville await.
An NCAA title, coming just five years after a championship game loss to Florida, could return the OSU program to the rarefied air Lucas and Havlicek once breathed. Especially the national perception.
But no matter what happens in New Orleans, it seems time for the tattered old scrapbooks to be put aside. Matta has already brought Ohio State basketball back.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.