Ohio is more than just Buckeye State

Updated: March 21, 2012, 11:08 PM ET
By Jason King | ESPN.com

Before he joined Ohio State's basketball team in Boston for the Sweet 16, Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith spent the early portions of the week traveling throughout the state for business meetings.

"Everywhere I went, all anyone wanted to talk about was the NCAA tournament," Smith said. "There's a tremendous amount of basketball pride in this state."

Especially this week.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Richard Mackson/US PresswireJared Sullinger and the Buckeyes are sharing their in-state success with three other programs.

The NCAA-title-contending Buckeyes may be the state's most popular program -- but they're far from the only reason Ohio citizens from city to city are strutting around with their chests puffed out.

For the first time in history, four of the 16 teams remaining in the NCAA tournament are from the same state.

Not North Carolina, where Tobacco Road is lined with some of the most tradition-rich programs in the country. Not Texas, Florida or California -- huge states with more than enough Division I prospects to fill out the rosters at the large number of nearby universities.

No, the first state to ever have four teams advance to the Sweet 16 is Ohio, where nearly every resident will have a team to root for this weekend. Ohio State and Cincinnati face off Thursday in Boston. Approximately 30 minutes after Xavier plays Baylor in Atlanta on Friday, Ohio will play North Carolina in St. Louis.

"There are so many great institutions here," Smith said. "Everyone is connected to one of them."

Other states have had three teams reach the NCAA tournament's second weekend, the last one being Tennessee in 2007.

But the fact that Ohio touts 25 percent of the Sweet 16 field clearly makes it the country's best basketball state in 2011-12. Heck, even the schools that didn't make the tournament had banner seasons, as Cleveland State, Akron, Kent State and Dayton all won at least 20 games.

Satisfying as it's been, people in the state's basketball inner circles struggle to pinpoint one, underlying reason for the success.

"The fact that four Ohio teams are in the Sweet 16 is probably just a coincidence," said Quentin Rogers, who coaches an Ohio Red squad which has won four AAU national titles in the past five years.

"It's just one of those years where the ball happened to bounce our way."

People such as Rogers deserve credit for at least some of Ohio's success. Rogers coached four Ohio State players -- sophomores Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon -- on the same AAU squad.

He obviously helped prepare them for the college level.

Sullinger and Craft both started as freshmen.

"Things like this are cyclical, but Ohio has clearly taken a step forward," Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said. "Players are much more prepared when they get to college. The coaching they're getting is strong, both at the AAU level and the high school level."

Still, it would be misleading to insinuate that Ohio products are the sole reason for the success of these four programs.

[+] EnlargeYancy Gates
Don McPeak/US PresswireAn Ohio native, Yancy Gates has been a big part of Cincinnati's success.

There are a combined 16 Ohio natives on the rosters of the state's four Sweet 16 teams. Ohio State and Ohio University each have six. There are two at Xavier and Cincinnati, one of which is standout forward Yancy Gates.

That means factors other than homegrown talent have come into play: passionate fan bases which produce sellout crowds, athletic departments that make financial commitments to each program and -- more than anything -- four really, really good coaches.

Instead of letting a December brawl with Xavier ruin his team's season, Cincinnati's Mick Cronin turned in one of the best coaching jobs in the nation by leading the Bearcats to a fourth-place finish in the Big East. Xavier went the opposite direction for most of the season under coach Chris Mack before rediscovering itself in March.

Ohio's John Groce may be sought after by bigger schools during the offseason after leading the Bobcats to the MAC tournament title and a victory over No. 4 seed Michigan during the NCAA's opening weekend.

Groce was an assistant under Ohio State coach Thad Matta both with the Buckeyes and at Xavier, where Matta coached before moving to Columbus.

"Thad doesn't think of it this way," XU athletic director Mike Bobinski said, "but his hand is over a lot of what goes on in our program. He got the ball rolling back in 2001 and we just built on it."

Cronin and Mack both have long-standing ties to the state. They were each born in Ohio and are coaching at their alma maters.

"We all think it's a pretty cool thing," Bobinski said. "There are so many common threads between the four programs. We're only four miles away from Cincinnati. We've always been proud of the basketball that's been played here in Cincinnati. Then you've got the Thad Matta connection to us and Ohio and now at Ohio State.

"There are a lot of things that go into this that make it really unique and really interesting. Then, if you go out a little bit further, you've got Kentucky and Indiana and Louisville in the Sweet 16, too. They're all a short drive away.

"It says a lot about what college basketball means in this area."

The question now is, how long it will continue?

Ohio University has a tough draw with No. 1 seed North Carolina, but Xavier has a good chance of defeating Baylor on Friday. And whoever wins Thursday's showdown between Cincinnati and Ohio State will have a legitimate shot of reaching the Final Four.

Rogers, the AAU coach, would love to be in Boston to watch the game. But he has another commitment.

"I've got a new young crop of kids I've got to coach in a tournament," he said. "You'll be hearing some of their names soon. Trust me."

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.