Commentary

Can hoops win at a football school?

Originally Published: March 24, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Spring football practice starts Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio. It is not an official holiday -- a local Columbus Day, if you will -- but don't be surprised if parents sneak their kids out of school for a half-day and businessmen find a reason for extended lunch breaks.

This is not an ordinary spring practice kickoff, after all.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer's hiring has kept attention on the football program at Ohio State.

This is the beginning of the Urbanization of Ohio State, the debut of Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes' patron saint of football salvation.

Of course, Wednesday also could be the day the Buckeyes' basketball team heads to New Orleans for the Final Four, should Ohio State get past Syracuse in the Elite Eight on Saturday.

Which begs the question: Which will a torn Buckeyes nation be more interested in?

"That's a good question," OSU guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. "I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the attention went to spring practice because of what happened with the football team, all the hype, Urban Meyer. I wouldn't expect our fans to shift away from us all of a sudden, especially if we're headed to New Orleans, because there are true basketball fans in Columbus."

And you can even find them, with the help of a pickax, a Garmin and Dora the Explorer, screaming underneath the avalanche of pigskin aficionados.

It's not quite the same in Syracuse, N.Y. Spring football started earlier this week, and with the exception of local media -- annoyed that coach Doug Marrone has closed practices -- no one has paid much attention.

"Basketball never stops in Syracuse," Orange forward Kris Joseph said. "Our football team is doing a really good job building the program, so no disrespect to them, but basketball is big. Real big."

This Elite Eight game poses all sorts of subplots and storylines -- the Fab Melo-less Orange against the Buckeyes' big men; Aaron Craft versus the Syracuse zone; Big East brand basketball versus Big Ten brawn hoops -- but it's also a unique peek into the divide at the top of the hoops elite.

The gap between mid-major and major has closed significantly, but there remains a bit of a chasm between football school and basketball school.

A national title, even a Final Four berth, will no question mean a great deal to both schools, but the wattage level is considerably different.

"Everyone will still call us a football school regardless," OSU's Jared Sullinger said, summing it up pretty succinctly.

[+] EnlargeCarrier Dome in Syracuse
Syracuse/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesThe Carrier Dome is a symbol of the popularity of basketball at Syracuse.

Syracuse would never be accused as such. Even in the heyday of Donovan McNabb, basketball wagged the dog, drawing people through snow squalls and around salt trucks to stuff the cavernous Carrier Dome to a perennial spot among college basketball's top draws.

According to the latest Department of Education figures, Syracuse basketball brings in $20 million annually to the university coffers, football $18 million.

Devoid of a single professional franchise (save minor leagues), Syracuse people are all Orange, holding college athletes with the same reverence and awe that pro towns reserve for their paid players.

Once that sort of adoration also went toward a guy such as McNabb, but with football on a fairly long run of lean years, the big men on campus all hoop.

Scoop Jardine signed his first autograph as a high school senior during a visit to the Dome, and Rakeem Christmas said that almost every day, he is stopped in town by someone who wants a picture with him.

That's hardly a surprise.

This is, remember, the town that held a near-religious revival upon the last game of Gerry McNamara's career, complete with small children singing a song for him and people who couldn't land tickets for the game coming in just to watch the pregame show.

"I can't go nowhere," Jardine said. "I get stopped all the time. I don't care. I love it. I'm the one in the arcade with the little kids playing."

And with little hope in the way of a future BCS title, the university and the city's very identity are wrapped in basketball success.

"We don't want to let our city down," Dion Waiters said.

Columbus is every bit a college town as much as Syracuse, complete with the rah-rah passion for the Buckeyes, but the passion has a very narrow focus. Back to those budget numbers -- football brings in $60 million to Ohio State compared to basketball's $17 million, a byproduct certainly of the bigger audience but also indicative of the rabidity of the fan base.

Football in Columbus comes first, and everything else jockeys for second.

[+] EnlargeThad Matta
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesThad Matta has built the Buckeyes into a national basketball power.

That would be true in any season, but in this one, after scandal forced out Jim Tressel and paved the road for Meyer, football has risen to the collegiate version of the Tim Tebow-Peyton Manning-Jeremy Lin trinity.

That the basketball program has been able to grow to such national prominence is a credit to the efforts of Thad Matta. One of the most underappreciated jobs is growing -- and even more, sustaining -- a winner in the shadow of football tradition.

In basketball circles, the Buckeyes of the hardwood are every bit a national brand as the Buckeyes of the gridiron. But anyone who tries to say the two have an equal pull on the masses is being disingenuous.

A football title equates to a full-on bacchanal.

A basketball championship no doubt would be feted and celebrated, too.

At least until April 21.

That's when the spring game kicks off.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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