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Commentary: Ohio State not a basketball school … yet

Before Friday’s Sweet 16 game against Kentucky, conditions were ripe for the Ohio State men’s basketball to overtake football as the most popular sport on campus.

The movement to push men’s hoops to the top of the OSU sporting landscape suffered a setback after the overall top-seeded Buckeyes lost, 62-60, to fourth-seeded Kentucky after guard Brandon Knight hit a go-ahead jumper for the Wildcats with 5.4 seconds to play.

Do not be deterred, though, Buckeye fans.

The loss might cause some of you to bury your basketball jerseys and “Zubaz” pants deep in your closets until next season. That is a reasonable reaction after watching William Buford clank a potentially game-winning 3-point shot off the front of the rim as time expired against Kentucky.

Fans who attended the Buckeyes’ elimination in Newark, N.J., and were subjected to the jeers of New Yorkers and Kentuckians following the loss also have good reason to recoil temporarily from supporting the basketball team.

These memories are painful, and the typical knee-jerk reaction to Buckeye basketball’s postseason disappointments is for fans to turn their attention back to OSU football, which will play its spring game April 23.

After the grieving period eases, Buckeye fans should re-evaluate the basketball team’s standing in OSU’s athletic hierarchy — and elevate it.

Failure to advance to the Elite Eight aside, the 2010–11 Buckeyes won 34 games, the second most in a season in program history. OSU also claimed both the regular-season and conference titles.

By virtue of the team’s 63-11 record over the past two seasons, back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and a trip to the 2007 NCAA Championship Game against Florida, fans are witnessing a period of immense success.

Basketball coach Thad Matta even referred to the modern-day Buckeyes as a “powerhouse” in a March 17 press conference.

“I love where the program is,” Matta said. “That was the goal when we came seven years ago … to build a basketball powerhouse. I like the position that we’re in.”

If OSU football gets the attention it does because of its elite status, the basketball team’s success should be receiving equal doses of admiration from Buckeye Nation.

Unlike football coach Jim Tressel, Matta has remained in compliance with NCAA regulations.

Buckeye football endured a forgettable 2011 offseason under Tressel’s watch. The NCAA upheld five-game suspensions for Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas for receiving improper benefits. Tressel was fined $250,000, and will miss the first five games of the 2011 season for failing to properly report the infractions.

Matta came face to face with another coach who is frequently accused of violating NCAA rules during Friday’s game against Kentucky.

Wildcats coach John Calipari left a bread crumb-like trail of violation allegations at previous coaching jobs, at Massachusetts and Memphis.

Unlike Tressel and Calipari, Matta provides fans with a baggage-free, national championship-contending team. A title contender with no investigations, infractions or suspensions — what a novel concept.

Matta’s team wins, and it wins the right way.

Perhaps the most memorable image to emerge from this past basketball season was David Lighty’s emotional departure from his final game at the Schottenstein Center on March 6. Lighty kneeled to kiss the Block “O” at half-court as he was substituted out of OSU’s 93-65 win against Wisconsin. Fans gave Lighty a standing ovation as he left the court.

That moment revealed the relationship between Buckeye fans and OSU basketball to be one of ever-increasing admiration and expectations.

The departure of basketball seniors Dallas Lauderdale, Jon Diebler and Lighty could be grounds for some fans to refocus on Buckeye football now that spring has arrived. But the future remains bright for OSU hoops.

Jared Sullinger already has vowed to return for the 2011 season. The freshman will rejoin classmates Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas, and they will look to defend the Buckeyes’ back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles.

Make no mistake, Sullinger is also coming back to help the basketball team make another run at the national title.

The basketball team will continue to compete on a national stage in the coming years, and fans will root for it with full confidence that it is adhering to NCAA regulations. With five key players — and Tressel — slated to be suspended for five games of the 2011 season because of rules violations, will the football team be able to promise either of those things to its fans?

Both programs play special and important roles at this university, but does OSU football still deserve “king of the hill” status in our community?

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