Indiana was perennially one of the top teams in the nation. Knight was an Ohio State grad—a sub behind Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek on the team that won the 1960 national championship—who seemed to draw a mix of love, awe and hate from the Buckeyes faithful.
Now Indiana is just another Big Ten opponent and Knight, amazingly, is a member of the media as a commentator on ESPN.
And Ohio State’s biggest games aren’t against archenemies so much as the best teams, the ones with the best chance of knocking off the second-ranked Buckeyes (26-2, 13-2).
“Everybody we play is a rival,” guard David Lighty said Saturday. “Maybe some places we go into fans are a little more crazy or dislike us more. But for us, it’s us against the world pretty much.”
So when Indiana (12-16, 3-12) comes to Columbus on Sunday, the importance rests not so much on who the opponent is for Ohio State as it does that one more win brings the Buckeyes closer to a conference title. Should Michigan State knock off Purdue earlier in the day, they could clinch a share of the Big Ten title with a win.
“But I don’t like to share,” Lighty said with a grin.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta used to be the head man at Xavier. The Musketeers played 30-some games but only one mattered to their fans: the annual Crosstown Shootout rivalry game against Cincinnati. Winning that game meant a year of bragging rights with your friends and co-workers, and overshadowed NCAA bids, 20-win seasons and conference titles.
Matta describes that game in one word: “Nuts.”
“That one is hard to explain,” he said. “You’re three miles down the road. I had neighbors who were UC graduates. That one was definitely unique.”
Knight’s departure, moving first to Texas Tech and then to ESPN, has taken much of the edge off the Indiana-Ohio State series. So has the Hoosiers’ recent downturn. The Buckeyes have won the last five meetings by an average score of 81-62. They took the earlier meeting this season in Bloomington, Ind., 85-67.
With no in-state, Big Ten rival as is the case in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, Ohio State’s fans tend to focus most of their attention on the best teams. The players aren’t a lot different in that regard.
“A lot has to do with past success,” said senior guard Jon Diebler, who last week became the Big Ten’s all-time leader in 3-pointers. “When you look at a Michigan State, everyone seems to get excited to play against them just because of how well they usually do in the (NCAA) tournament.”
So the games carry more weight if the teams have something at stake: If one or both are ranked or near the top of the standings.
Since Ohio State has been in the top 10 all season—and was No. 1 for several weeks—it stands to reason that playing the Buckeyes ends up being a red-letter day for most opposing teams.
“For us, every game is kind of a rivalry game,” Lighty said. “Because everyone is looking to beat us just like we’re looking to beat them.”
But the days of hard-core enmity between Indiana and Ohio State are over, at least for now. When Knight left, the bond between him and Ohio State and his old coach, Fred Taylor, was severed. And what was once a heated rivalry cooled significantly.
“I wasn’t around when Coach (Knight) was at Indiana, but I could definitely see the rivalry factor from him being a graduate to his affection for Coach Taylor, all that,” said Matta, who grew up in Hoopeston, Ill., as a big fan of Knight’s Hurryin’ Hoosiers. “I could definitely, definitely see where the rivalry was there.
“Now, for us, we don’t have the Carolina-Duke type of situation. But it appears like, when we go on the road for sure, we’re everybody’s rival.”