Another Final Four Proves Ohio State Not Just A Football School

What do UCLA, North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas have in common with Ohio State?

The answer is obviously not football. The Buckeyes have celebrated five consensus national championships in that sport, five more than the Bruins, Tar Heels, Wildcats, Blue Devils and Jayhawks have won combined.

When the conversation turns to basketball, however, the overriding conjecture is that the Buckeyes do not belong in that group of elite programs. And that is where the overriding conjecture is dead wrong.

I mentioned this in a previous column a couple of years ago, but in light of the Ohio State basketball team making its 11th trip to the Final Four, it bears repeating.

Back in 1989 when Gary Williams was head coach of the Buckeyes, the two of us were visiting in the coach’s office at St. John Arena. At one point during the interview, Williams wheeled around in his chair, looked outside his second-story window and said something to the effect of “I’ll never understand why this school doesn’t support basketball the way it does football.”

Without much thought about how it would sound, I immediately replied, “Well, Coach, there’s a simple explanation and part of it is why your office is located on Woody Hayes Drive and not Fred Taylor Drive.”

Williams didn’t like it, but the implication was clear. Ohio State was then, is now and always has been a football school. That has to do with any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the football program generates many, many more dollars than the basketball team.

Football is also the sport where most Buckeye fans get their identity. Ask 100 fans to name their favorite Ohio State sports memory and chances are 95 of them will have to do with football.

In terms of championships, however – or at least in terms of playing for championships – the basketball Buckeyes are very much on par with their football brethren.

Ohio State celebrates those five consensus national championships in football (1942, 1954, 1957, 1968 and 2002) and several more if you count the National Championship Foundation title in 1944, the championship awarded by the Football Writers Association of America in 1961 and the trophy handed out in 1970 by the National Football Foundation.

Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team has only the 1960 national title banner hanging in the rafters of the Schottenstein Center.

But with the basketball Buckeyes making their 11th trip to the Final Four, the program has cemented its claim to join elite status with the aforementioned cage powerhouses. Only UCLA (18), North Carolina (18), Kentucky (15), Duke (15) and Kansas (14) have made more trips to the Final Four than Ohio State.

The perception of Ohio State as a football school was steeped mightily by the Woody Hayes era that began in 1951, produced its first national championship in 1954 and became an all-encompassing behemoth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It was Taylor’s unfortunate fate to serve as basketball coach of the Buckeyes during the same era as Hayes. Taylor’s persona of mild-mannered tactician made far fewer headlines than his football counterpart’s bombastic personality. But the truth of the matter is that Taylor’s best years were more successful than any comparable stretch Hayes put together.

From 1960-63, the basketball team posted a 98-10 record (a .907 winning percentage) with four straight Big Ten titles, three trips to the Final Four and one national championship. Hayes’ best four-year span came between 1972 and ’75 when the football team went 40-5-1, good for an .880 winning percentage, won the Big Ten championship each year and appeared in a record-setting four straight Rose Bowls.

Still, Ohio State football has generally always trumped Ohio State basketball in the minds of most fans. Not that it should be that way. There should be room to embrace both programs by the majority of Buckeye Nation.

And why not? Florida proved in 2007 that national championships can be won both in football and basketball (victimizing Ohio State in the process of capturing both). Now, with Urban Meyer patrolling the halls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and Thad Matta marking his second trip to the Final Four in the past six seasons, why can’t the Buckeyes be national championship contenders in both sports?

History dictates they always have been.


** Did anyone notice that Syracuse began to leave William Buford alone on the offensive end during the final minutes of the regional final game? The OSU senior’s late-season shooting slump became more pronounced in the NCAA Tournament. After scoring 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting in the tourney opener against Loyola, Buford went 8 for 33 (24.2 percent) in the next three games vs. Gonzaga, Cincinnati and Syracuse.

Look, the last thing I would ever want to do is dump on a kid who has played his guts out for Ohio State these past four years. Likewise, I know Matta feels he owes Buford a huge debt of gratitude for his years of service. But doesn’t the coach also owe his only senior the chance to win a championship ring even if it means some Final Four bench time?

** Imagine one game with this scenario: Jared Sullinger gets his normal double-double, Aaron Craft has an overall game like he did against Gonzaga, Deshaun Thomas lights up the scoreboard as he did against Loyola, Lenzelle Smith Jr. rains in threes the way he did against Cincinnati and Syracuse and Buford shakes off his lengthy slump and finally plays the way we know he’s capable of playing.

No opponent – not even heavy favorite Kentucky – could match that kind of firepower.

** How do you like this starting five for next season: Craft at the point, Smith at shooting guard, LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson at forward and Amir Williams at center.

Craft is already a star and Smith only needs consistency to become one. Ross has an impressive skill set, Thompson can literally jump out of any gym and Williams will become better and better the more experience he gets.

Of course, that starting five is minus Sullinger and Thomas. This year was a gift from Sullinger, who could have gone to the NBA last year and been a lottery pick. As for Thomas, continued success through the Final Four will likely mean he’s gone next year as well.


** Did you know the NCAA Tournament is the brainchild of a former Ohio State basketball coach? In 1938, OSU head coach Harold Olsen, also a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, proposed the concept of a national championship tournament. The first tourney was held the following season at Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill., with Olsen’s Buckeyes losing to Oregon in the title game. Olsen remained tournament chairman from its inception until 1946.

** Did you further know the term “Final Four” also has Ohio roots? It first appeared that year in an article for “The Official Collegiate Basketball Guide” and was coined by Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Ed Chay. In the story, Chay simply mentioned that “outspoken coach Al McGuire’s (Marquette) team was one of the final four” during the previous season’s tournament. Someone at the NCAA liked the phrase and the governing body of college sports later trademarked it.

** McGuire is credited with first referring to the NCAA Tournament as “The Big Dance.” During his team’s run to the 1977 championship, the coach wore the same blue blazer for each regular-season game. When asked if he would continue to wear the blazer in the NCAA Tournament, McGuire replied, “Absolutely. You gotta wear the blue blazer when you go to the big dance.”

Buckeyes Have Made Sixth Most Final Four Trips

Ohio State has a rich NCAA Tournament tradition through the years including appearing in four of the first eight Final Fours. The Buckeyes return this season to college basketball’s version of the Promised Land, taking on Kansas on March 31 in the national semifinals at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

It will mark the program’s 11th trip to the Final Four, the sixth most in tournament history.

North Carolina and UCLA are tied for the most Final Four appearances with 18 each. Next is Kentucky, which this season makes a 15th trip to the Final Four to tie Duke for third most, while Kansas will be making trip No. 14 this year.

Ohio State began making Final Four treks in 1939 – the NCAA Tournament’s inaugural year – and has appeared in three consecutive Final Fours on two occasions. The Buckeyes were among the tournament’s final four teams from 1944 through 1946 and made three straight trips again in 1960-62.

The 1960 appearance resulted in the program’s only national title, including a 75-55 blowout of defending champion California in the championship game.

Here are brief recaps of Ohio State’s previous 10 trips to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

1939 – The first-ever NCAA Tournament featured an eight-team field consisting of seven conference champions and one independent. East region teams were Brown, Ohio State, Villanova and Wake Forest, while Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah State represented the West.

Quarterfinal matches weren’t close with each advancing team winning by double digits. The same held true in the semifinals as OSU rolled to a 53-36 victory over Villanova while Oregon easily dispatched Oklahoma by a 55-37 final.

In the title game, held in Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Ill., the Howard Hobson-coached Ducks scored a 46-33 win over the Buckeyes to capture the title. Ohio State took a measure of solace when All-America forward Jimmy Hull was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

1944 – Ohio State made a return trip to the tournament as part of an eight-team field that also featured Catholic, Temple and Dartmouth in the East region as well as Iowa State, Missouri, Pepperdine and Utah from the West.

The Buckeyes drew Temple in the quarterfinal round and dealt the Owls a 57-47 loss at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Back at the Garden for the semifinals, OSU wasn’t quite as fortunate, falling to Dartmouth by a 60-53 final.

The Big Green went on to lose a 42-40 decision to Utah in the championship game. The Utes were led by freshman Arnie Ferrin, who was named the tournament MVP. Ferrin went on to become the only four-time All-American in Utah history and led the team to the 1947 NIT title as a senior.

1945 – The 1945 tournament was filled with legendary coaches including Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, Henry Iba of Oklahoma A&M, Howard Cann of NYU and Harold Olsen of Ohio State. Each would later be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Buckeyes were joined in the East region by Kentucky, NYU and upstart Tufts University while the West was represented by Arkansas, Oklahoma A&M, Oregon and Utah.

OSU got past Kentucky in the quarterfinals by a 45-37 score, but the Buckeyes dropped a 70-65 overtime thriller to NYU in the semifinals. The Violets advanced to the championship final, where they lost a 49-45 final to Oklahoma A&M. The Cowboys’ 7-foot center Bob Kurland, who won Olympic gold medals with the U.S. basketball team in 1948 and 1952, was the tournament MVP.

1946 – The Cowboys and Kurland were back to defend their title in ’46 and were joined in the West region by Baylor, California and Colorado. Meanwhile, Ohio State was making its third straight tournament appearance and was part of an East region that included NYU, North Carolina and Harvard.

The Buckeyes rolled to a 46-38 win in their quarterfinal match with Harvard but came up short again in overtime in the semis, losing a hard-fought 60-57 decision to North Carolina. Meanwhile, A&M (now known as Oklahoma State), sailed through Baylor and Cal before notching a 43-40 win over the Tar Heels in the championship final.

Kurland repeated as tournament MVP and Iba claimed his second straight national championship. That was a first-ever feat in the NCAA Tournament and would not be repeated until a Bill Russell-led San Francisco won back-to-back titles in 1955 and ’56.

The 1946 tournament marked the first time that losers of the national semifinal games played one another for a third-place trophy. Ohio State captured that honor with a 63-45 victory over Cal, thanks in part to 19 points from junior center Jack Underman. The third-place game would continue through the 1981 tournament.

1960 – Thanks to a strong class of high school stars signed in 1958, Ohio State made the first of three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament championship game.

By 1960, the tournament had expanded to include 25 teams playing in four regions. The Buckeyes were included in the six-team Mideast region along with Georgia Tech, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame, Ohio University and Western Kentucky.

Tournament teams were not seeded in those days, but OSU received an opening-round bye before facing high-scoring Western Kentucky, which was coming off a 107-84 pasting of Miami in the regional quarterfinals. But the Hilltoppers had no answer for Ohio State sophomore center Jerry Lucas, who totaled 36 points and 25 rebounds during a 98-79 victory. Lucas’ point total remains an OSU record for an NCAA Tournament game.

The Buckeyes went on to coast to an 86-69 victory over Georgia Tech in the regional finals, giving the team its first trip to the Final Four in 14 years. OSU then proceeded to run roughshod over its opponents, first taking a 76-54 decision over NYU before blowing away defending national champion California by the 75-55 score in the title game.

Lucas was named tournament MVP after averaging 24.0 points and 16.0 rebounds in four games.

1961 – With Lucas returning along with junior classmate John Havlicek and senior captain Larry Siegfried, Ohio State was a heavy favorite to repeat as the national champion. The Buckeyes, who entered the tournament with a perfect 24-0 record, were placed in a Mideast region that included such perennial heavyweights as Kentucky and Louisville as well as such underdogs as Morehead State, Ohio University and Xavier.

Following a first-round bye, OSU had some difficulty with Louisville before scoring a 56-55 squeaker over the Cardinals. The regional final was a much more comfortable affair as the Buckeyes got 33 points and 30 rebounds from Lucas during an 87-74 win over Kentucky. The rebound mark established another OSU record in an NCAA Tournament game for Lucas.

In the national semifinal game against St. Joseph’s, coached by the famed Dr. Jack Ramsay, the Buckeyes ran away with a 95-69 victory. But two days later, they were denied a second straight title when Cincinnati landed four players in double figures and scored a 70-65 upset win.

Lucas was again named the tournament’s most valuable player after averaging 24.5 points and 18.3 rebounds during his four games.

St. Joseph’s won the third-place game with a 127-120 win in four overtimes over Utah. No NCAA Tournament game has since gone to four overtimes. The victory was later vacated when St. Joseph’s was rocked by a gambling scandal.

1962 – The Buckeyes were determined to avenge their only loss from the year before and sailed into the 1962 tournament fresh off a third straight Big Ten title and a 23-1 regular-season record.

OSU found some familiar faces in the Mideast region as Western Kentucky and Kentucky again qualified for tournament play. But neither team from the Bluegrass State could get past the Buckeyes as the Hilltoppers dropped a 93-73 decision in the semifinals before the Wildcats were victimized in the regional finals by a 74-64 decision.

Those victories sent Ohio State back to the Final Four, and the team sailed through Wake Forest, 84-68, in the semifinals. But Lucas sustained an injury in that contest and wasn’t his normal self for the championship game rematch with Cincinnati. The OSU star still accounted for 11 points and 16 rebounds, but the Bearcats got 22 points and 19 boards from center Paul Hogue to win a surprisingly easy 71-59 decision.

Despite the fact he averaged 18.0 points and 15.0 rebounds during the tournament, Lucas was denied a third straight MVP trophy as the award went to Hogue, who had averaged 29.0 points and 19.0 rebounds in the Final Four.

1968 – Legendary head coach Fred Taylor appeared in his fourth and final Final Four, guiding an overachieving team to a tie for the Big Ten championship.

The Buckeyes were back in the Mideast region, joined by the likes of Bowling Green, East Tennessee State, Kentucky, Marquette and Florida State. OSU received a first-round bye despite going only 18-7 during the regular season. Its first tournament action came in the regional semifinals and resulted in a 79-72 win over East Tennessee State.

That set up a regional final vs. Kentucky, and the Buckeyes squeezed out an 82-81 victory thanks to a combined 45 points and 19 rebounds from senior forward Bill Hosket and sophomore center Dave Sorenson.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, it ran into a North Carolina buzz saw in the national semifinals and bowed with an 80-66 loss. The Tar Heels went on to lose a 78-55 decision to UCLA in the title game, giving the Bruins their fourth national championship in five years. Lew Alcindor (who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was named tourney MVP.

The Buckeyes took home the third-place trophy following an 89-85 win over an Elvin Hayes-led Houston team. Junior forward John Howell scored 26 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in that game for OSU while Hosket added 19 points and 17 boards. Hayes had game-high totals of 34 points and 16 rebounds for the Cougars.

1999 – Ohio State ended a 31-year Final Four drought with an improbable postseason run by a team that had finished with an 8-22 record the year before.

The NCAA Tournament had undergone lots of changes since the Buckeyes had been away, including an expansion to include 64 teams. OSU entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed in the South region and opened with double-digit victories over Murray State (72-58) and Detroit (75-44) before bouncing No. 1 seed Auburn by a 72-63 final.

That set up a regional final vs. third-seeded St. John’s, and the Buckeyes scored a 77-74 victory over the Red Storm to earn a trip to the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The magical postseason run ended there, however, with a 64-58 loss to eventual champion Connecticut. The Buckeyes were victimized by a cold second half from the floor as they made only 8 of 33 attempts (24.2 percent). Ohio State guards Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn totaled 15 and 11 points, respectively, in the title game but shot a collective 10 for 31 (32.2 percent) for the contest.

Five years later, Ohio State’s feel-good march to the Final Four as well as most of the team’s victories from 1999 through 2002 were vacated due to NCAA violations committed during head coach Jim O’Brien’s tenure.  

2007 – Third-year head coach Thad Matta put together a team that featured several veterans and a mix of talented freshmen, and that formula propelled the Buckeyes all the way to the national championship game.

Ohio State carried a 30-3 record into the tournament, earning a No. 1 seed in the South region. An opening-round 78-57 rout of Central Connecticut preceded a pair of heart-pounding victories – a 78-71 overtime win over Xavier followed by an 85-84 victory over Tennessee to get to the regional finals.

There, the battle-tested Buckeyes took out second-seeded Memphis, getting 22 points from senior guard Ron Lewis during a 92-76 decision to advance to the Final Four at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

During the national semifinals, Ohio State scored a 67-60 win over Georgetown before the postseason ride ended with an 84-75 loss to defending national champion Florida in the title game. Freshman center Greg Oden totaled 25 points and 12 rebounds for the Buckeyes while freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. added 20 points, six assists and four steals.

The loss was especially bitter because the Gators had defeated the OSU football team three months earlier to capture the national title in that sport.

Where Have You Gone, Jonny Diebler?

With the sincerest of apologies to Paul Simon, this musical question begs an answer as Ohio State enters March Madness: “Where have you gone, Jonny Diebler? Buckeye Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

I left out the “woo woo woo” part, but you get the idea.

Diebler, like Joe DiMaggio in Simon & Garfunkel’s 1968 hit “Mrs. Robinson,” has left and gone away, taking his talents to Greece where he is averaging 10.1 points per game and connecting on 52.8 percent of his three-point shots in his first season for the Panionios BC team.

Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Diebler seems to have also taken most of his former team’s outside shooting prowess with him overseas.

For much of the season – or at least since mid-February when the Buckeyes began losing games at an alarming pace – many observers have been of the opinion that the team lacks the floor leadership provided last season by David Lightly. Me? I think leadership is overrated especially when you can’t find the bottom of the basket, and that has been the Achilles’ heel for Ohio State this season.

To put it bluntly, there are nights when the Buckeyes couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle. They simply have no outside shooter on whom they can rely on a consistent basis. The team’s best three-point marksman is none other than Jared Sullinger at 39.4 percent, but I doubt very seriously OSU can hang its NCAA hat on the long-range shooting of a player who needs to spend 90 percent of his time in the paint.

Ohio State could be one of the streakiest shooting teams I have ever witnessed over the course of an entire season. It’s not just that the Buckeyes’ touch comes and goes on a game-to-game basis; it ebbs and flows by the minute.

A perfect example came in the second half of the Big Ten tournament championship final against Michigan State. The Buckeyes made seven of their first nine shots after the break to turn a two-point halftime deficit into a 52-45 lead at the 14:06 mark of the second half.

Then they proceeded to miss 11 of their next 13 attempts from the floor, falling back into a 62-57 hole with 5:48 remaining. OSU followed that cold spell by making two of its next three shots to climb back within two at 64-62 at the 3:27 mark, but the Buckeyes finished the game with misfires on eight of their final nine attempts and dropped a 68-64 decision to the Spartans.

That second-half performance (12 for 34, 35.3 percent) knocked their shooting percentage down to 39.7 for the game. That from the same Ohio State team that shot 60.7 percent two days earlier on the same floor during an 88-71 victory over Purdue.

Unfortunately, you never know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis from this year’s Ohio State team. The Buckeyes played like world-beaters back in late November when they chewed up and spit out a Duke team that finished 27-6 this season. And OSU played inspired basketball at Michigan State on March 4, going into the Breslin Center and erasing an early 15-point deficit before securing a 72-70 victory and the piece of the Big Ten regular-season championship that went with it.

Then there were the lackluster performances that resulted in three losses – two of them at home – during a six-game span in February. There were times during that stretch when passes became lazier, help defense disappeared and the Buckeyes looked a step slow and largely uninterested.

There was also one other constant in those defeats – lousy shooting.

Ohio State finished second in the Big Ten this season in shooting percentage, its 48.3 mark just a tick below Indiana’s 48.7. But in their seven losses, the Buckeyes shot barely better than 40.0 percent – 160 for 391, which equals 40.9 percent. In four of those games, the team shot less than 40 percent, and in the first loss to Michigan State on Feb. 11, the Buckeyes turned in a season-low performance of 26.4 percent during a 58-48 loss.

The poor shooting cannot be traced to just one player. Sophomore point guard Aaron Craft, for example, missed a pair of layups in the second half of the Big Ten tournament title game against the Spartans, and he was a 50.5-percent shooter for the season.

But senior guard William Buford is a lightning rod for most of the team’s critics, and the numbers don’t lie. During the team’s 27 victories this season, Buford shot 45.6 percent (155 for 340) from the field and 38.7 percent (48 for 124) from three-point territory. During the team’s seven losses, Buford’s percentages went off a cliff – 32.6 overall (31 for 95) and 17.4 from behind the arc (4 for 23).

To be sure, Buford is just one player out of five on the floor. But more often than not, the rest of the team takes its shooting cues from its only senior. During the conference tournament final loss to Michigan State, Buford made three of his first four attempts and then missed seven of his final eight, including two three-pointers in the final 33 seconds while the Buckeyes were trailing by five.

I’m not trying to suggest that Buford is the sole reason Ohio State lost seven games this season. The Buckeyes lost seven games this season – including four of their last 10 – because they do not have anyone who can be relied upon to consistently knock down an outside shot.

That is the major reason that Ohio State misses Diebler so much. It’s also how the Buckeyes have gone from a lead-pipe Final Four lock to a team whose NCAA Tournament fortunes are now anyone’s guess.