Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
Gene Smith doesn’t mind the notion of Ohio State being known as more than just a football powerhouse.
In an interview with The Lantern on March 12, the OSU athletic director said there’s no reason the Buckeyes, known perhaps most for its storied program on the gridiron, can’t be touted as a basketball school, too.
Smith weighed in on the men’s basketball team, the Big Ten and more.
Big Reasons behind B1G Success
In the final Associated Press top 25 poll of the regular season, Big Ten basketball found itself with four teams (Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and OSU) in the top 10. Such success has carried over into the NCAA Tournament, too, as those same four squads find themselves making up a quarter of the Sweet 16.
What’s behind the conference’s ascent into arguably the most-dominant league in the nation?
“Well,” Smith said, “I think it’s stability.”
That stability, he said, starts with coaching.
“I think when you look at the coaches that we have now, a lot of good ones – and hopefully we can maintain that stability – and that says a lot about the institutions. All of us have always been committed to basketball, putting the resources in place,” he said. “We have great fans and creating the atmosphere of the games. So think all of us have tried to do that.”
Such resources, inevitably, include money. OSU men’s basketball coach Thad Matta makes $3.2 million annually, according to his new contract. MSU coach Tom Izzo makes almost $3.6 million annually, Indiana coach Tom Crean’s salary is $2.24 million and Michigan coach John Beilein makes almost $2.23 million a year, according to a USA TODAY salary database.
Some of it, though, is consistency in player personnel across the league, Smith said.
“I think this particular year – if I remember right – there were only two underclassmen that left last year. Jared (Sullinger) and the big guy from Illinois (former Illini center Meyers Leonard),” he said. “Everybody else came back and so that’s kind of an unusual year for us. Typically, there’s more than that in the underclassmen.
“So there’s some stability in that – those guys returning. You know, (Michigan sophomore guard) Trey Burke returning was huge. And (OSU junior forward) Deshaun (Thomas) returning. To me, it’s stability in that as well.”
Nor does it hurt, Smith said, that some of the Big Ten’s venues are “unreal.”
“Here, at Ohio State with the changes we made – whatever year we brought the students down (at the Schottenstein Center) – it was a huge change for us. And other places already had some of that in place,” he said. “But when you go to those arenas, even Northwestern, when you go to that arena – which is a small arena – they get going.
“I think basketball in this league is taking a step up for a number of reasons.”
Not Just a Football School
Smith said when he first came to Columbus in 2005, he sat down and talked with Matta about his “vision, his long-range plan” and how the OSU men’s basketball coach could turn the Buckeyes into a “national-championship type of program.”
Since Matta’s arrival in 2004, OSU has come close to reaching the sport’s pinnacle but has not quite attained it. Under Matta’s direction, the Buckeyes have reached the Sweet 16 five times, the Elite 8 twice, the Final Four twice and the national title game once.
In the Big Ten, Matta has captured five Big Ten championships and four Big Ten Tournament titles.
That kind of resume, arguably, reads like that of a school known for its prowess on the hardwood. But at a school like OSU, football seems to reign over all other sports – including basketball.
Smith said that shouldn’t be the case.
“You know, there’s no reason that, in Columbus – population north of 1.3 million, everything included – we can’t be a school that’s dominant in basketball and football and other sports as well,” he said. “The numbers are there, the population is there, the interest is there. I think when you look back over it, last year we averaged around 15,000 (people per home basketball game).”
And with the Schottenstein Center’s capacity of nearly 20,000, the average attendance for an OSU basketball game is an “oversell” compared to other venues, he said.
“We’re one of the bigger arenas. Most (arenas) are 15,000 (seats) or less. So that 15,000 average is demonstration of the interest in this community for basketball,” Smith said. “If you have that, and you bring your recruits into that environment then you can build it.
“There’s no reason not to strive for conference and national championships in basketball and be recognized as a school that does that. Football’s always going to be the king, we know that for a lot of reasons … it’s embedded in our culture for years and years.”
The difference in breaking down that inevitable fact? Smith said it’s Matta.
Matta and March Madness
In what once seemed like a season come undone after a 22-point loss to Wisconsin, Matta and the Buckeyes have rattled off 10-straight wins en route to a Big Ten Tournament championship, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and, most recently, its fourth-consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16.
Smith called Matta’s most-recent coaching job “marvelous.”
“To watch them emerge and develop over time and get to a point where they’re really playing well together is huge,” Smith said.
In particular, he pointed to the shellacking in Madison as the season’s crux and turning point.
“The Wisconsin game up there, we did not play well together,” he said. “They solved that problem.”
OSU will face Arizona Thursday at 7:47 p.m. at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
A win would mark back-to-back showings in the Elite 8 for the Buckeyes.