Despite not reaching NCAA tournament, Buckeyes have stirred fans with three impressive home showings 

On March 16, “the bubble was burst,” “the air let out of the balloon” and 100 other overused metaphors tabbed the Ohio State men’s basketball season. Yes, the Buckeyes were left out of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

Although they may possess the deepest voices in all of college basketball, Buckeyes Jamar Butler and Matt Terwilliger responded to the snub with even lower, monotone reactions when speaking with media before the NIT pairings were released later that night. (Butler audio link above)

While their faces were blank with the numb reality of missing the tournament a season after playing for the NCAA title, a fire kindled inside the pair of seniors.

“It is not over yet,” Terwilliger said that day. “We started it there (New York) and we want to end it there. We’re not out yet. We are still in the tournament. We need to get out there and get ready to play.” (Terwilliger audio link above)

It was apparent the entire team was ignited by the snub and it has been displayed in the three home performances so far this postseason. In what is considered a postseason alternative to the “Big Dance,” the Buckeyes have been a part of a memorable NIT run thus far.

In the opener, Ohio State faced UNC-Asheville and its imposing sophomore center Kenny George all 7 feet, 7 inches of him. George proved to be effective against the Buckeyes. He came off the bench to record 12 points and 11 rebounds, but it was the Buckeyes who pulled away for an 84-66 victory in front of a modest, but enthusiastic Value City Arena crowd of just more than 7,000.

True, some fans may have purchased tickets just to see George play, but either way they were treated to an up-tempo showing led by Butler’s double-double with 21 points and 10 assists. Butler was just getting started.

After nearly a week off, the Buckeyes went retro and renewed a rivalry with California at historic St. John Arena, Ohio State basketball’s home for more than four decades.

In the 1960 NCAA Championship game, Ohio State claimed its only men’s basketball national title with a 75-55 victory over the Golden Bears. The NIT game at St. John was the first meeting between the schools since the title contest.

Interest proved high from the Buckeye faithful as the old arena sold out midway through the afternoon on game day.

During a 17-2 Ohio State run to end the first half, the capacity gathering of 13,276 rose to its feet and created an atmosphere head coach Thad Matta later described as “electric.” Butler buried three 3-pointers during the spurt, tilting the decibel meter each time he ripped the net. (St. John audio slide show link above)

“It was really great to hear the fans be so loud,” Butler said after posting at least 20 points for the second game in a row. “The atmosphere really got us going. Every college athlete wants to play in this kind of environment.”

The Cal win opened the door for another renewed rivalry with nearby Dayton. Ohio State was back at VCA to welcome the Flyers, who made the nearly 80 mile bus trip a day after winning at Illinois State, 55-48, to earn a shot at New York on the Buckeyes’ home floor.

The Dayton faithful traveled well as the UD pep band tagged along for the trip. Throughout the first half, hearty Dayton chants were washed out by echoing cheers of “O-H-I-O” from all four corners of the arena.

Despite trailing, 31-30, at the break, Ohio State eventually silenced the Dayton contingent and enjoyed a second-half cruise to victory, 74-63.

The NIT has represented an incline for a young team that has endured a rollercoaster of a season.

The “ups” include the first trip to New York this season in the NIT Tip Off finals, a 3-0 mark to start Big Ten play and a strong finish the regular season. The “Downs” comprised tough stretches in December and February that proved too damaging to reach the NCAA tournament.

Tuesday, the NIT ride continues vs. Mississippi at approximately 9 p.m.

“To be playing for the second-straight year in April, I couldn’t be happier,” Matta said at an NIT press conference Monday. “Some of the crowds, for our program, we had filled to capacity. What I think that did for our program and fan base, I could not be happier. We are honored to be here and hopefully we will be playing our best basketball Tuesday night.”

By Pat Kindig,