It’s March, and the madness is just around the corner. As college basketball teams and office dwellers from across the country await the news about when, where – or if – they’ll play in this year’s tournament for the right to be crowned national champions, let’s look back at Ohio’s important place in the history of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Like many things we’ve learned in creating our new exhibit, Ohio – Champion of Sports, our state has played in integral role in the NCAA Tournament from the very beginning.
In 1939, Ohio State basketball coach Harold Olsen, who led the National Association of Basketball Coaches, convinced the NCAA to create an eight-team tournament to counter what he felt was an unfair process used by the National Invitation Tournament, which was considered the premier tournament of the day.
Harold Olsen pictured in 1939. Photo: The Ohio State University
Olsen’s Buckeyes were tournament runners-up in that inaugural NCAA tournament, losing to the Oregon Webfoots (later renamed the Ducks) 46–33 in Evanston, Illinois. Jimmy Hull of Ohio State was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Three Years of Ohio Dominance
Decades later, Ohio teams would dominate the championship. In 1960, a loaded Ohio State team, including future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, and Bob Knight (enshrined as a coach), defeated California 75-55 with lights-out shooting and a stifling defense.
The following season, the Cincinnati Bearcats led by first-year coach Ed Jucker and without legendary star Oscar Robertson their (who had graduated the year before), defeated the roster-stacked Buckeyes, 70–65 in an overtime thriller to win the 1961 National Championship. Again, in 1962, the Bearcats defeated the Buckeyes in the Championship rematch, proving the first championship was no fluke. The 71-59 victory cemented the Bearcats atop the national landscape.
Those back-to-back championship games are commonly thought to have started decades of bad blood between the Ohio schools — the two teams would not meet again for 56 years.
Cincinnati made another appearance in the Championship Game in 1963, ending its three-year-run in the Championship game with a 60-58 loss to the Loyola Ramblers. The Bearcats gave up a 15-point second half lead and lost on a shot at the buzzer.
Cincinnati Bearcats coach Ed Jucker hoists the championship trophy with Bob Wiesenhahn (No. 21) hoist the 1961 national championship trophy after defeating The Ohio State University. Photo: UC Athletics
The story that’s often lost about those Bearcat teams is that four of the five players in the starting lineup – Paul “Duke” Hogue, Tom Thacker, George Wilson, and Tony Yates – were African-American, something that had never happened in the previous 23 seasons. It would be five more years before the obscure Texas Western Miners from El Paso, Texas, became the first to start five black players in an NCAA Tournament game versus the Kentucky Wildcats, who infamously started five white players.
1961 Cincinnati Bearcats: Front row from left–Jim Calhoun, Tony Yates, Carl Bouldin, Paul Hogue, Bob Wiesenhahn, Tom Thacker and Tom Sizer. Back row–Head coach Ed Jucker, Larry Shingleton, Fred Dierking, Ron Reis, Dale Heidotting, Mark Altenau and assistant coach Tay Baker. Photo: UC Athletics
While Ohio’s major universities dominate the headlines of history, tournament fans love the underdog stories – and Ohio has delivered those, too.
Among the most memorable was the “Wally World” Sweet 16 run by Miami University and its star senior, Wally Szczerbiak, in 1999. The RedHawks, who failed to win their conference tournament, were America’s darling as a 10 seed, dismantling 7th seeded Washington. Szczerbiak’s career-high 43 points, 12 rebounds, and last-second blocked shot sealed the 59-58 upset victory.
Wally Szczerbiak and Miami University men’s basketball team celebrates after the NCAA upset. Photo: Washington Post
The RedHawks busted untold brackets with a 66-58 win over 2-seed Utah that was never as close as the score suggests. Once again, Szczerbiak was the X factor, dropping 24 points and five assists and sending Miami to its only Sweet 16 appearance.
Szczerbiak scored all but four of Miami’s first-half points against the defending national champion and 3-seed Kentucky. But the Wildcats were too much for the RedHawks in the second half and Cinderella’s unlikely run ended with a 58-43 defeat. Szczerbiak led all scorers with 23 points.
Up the road in 2014, the 11-seed Dayton Flyers would make Ohio proud while simultaneously crushing many a Buckeye dream with a go-ahead layup with just 3.8 seconds left in the round of 64. The 60-59 victory gave the Flyers their first win against Ohio State since 1987 and an NCAA victory for the third time in 25 seasons.
Vee Sanford #43 of the Dayton Flyers reacts after defeating The Ohio State Buckeyes in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Photo: CBS Los Angeles
The party would continue after the Flyers held on for 52-46 defensive win over 3-seed Syracuse to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years.
The Flyers controlled that Sweet 16 game versus the 10-seed Stanford Cardinal, tallying points from 11 of 12 players who appeared in the game on their way to an 82-72 victory. The Flyers’ unlikely run would end in the Elite 8 after being buried by a 15-1 Florida run that the top seeded Gators would use to cruise to a 62-52 win. While Dayton had made deeper tournament runs in previous decades, this one undeniably lifted UD back into the national spotlight.
If you want to catch some of this year’s tournament action, head to Columbus on March 22 and 24 as Nationwide Arena hosts six games of the first and second rounds. This will be seventh time Ohio’s capital city will host NCAA tournament games (including 2004, 2007, 2012, 2015, 2019 at Nationwide Arena and the 1957 and 1970 games in historic St. John Arena).
But NCAA games have been hosted throughout the Buckeye State in 35 of the 69 NCAA tournaments including U.S. Bank Arena (Cincinnati, 1988, 1992, 1979 and 1987); the Wolstein Center (Cleveland, 2000, 2005); Quicken Loans Arena (Cleveland, 2011, 2015); University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1981, 1985, 1986, 1991, 1992, 1995, 2001, 2006, 2009, 2013); and the MAC Center (Kent, 1966, 1968).
The tournament format changed slightly in 2001, again putting Ohio in the spotlight when then NCAA expanded the field from 64 to 65 to accommodate the fledgling Mountain West Conference Champion. From 2001 to 2010, the two lowest seeded teams squared off at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio in a play-in game for the right to face the tournament’s top seed a few days later.
Dayton became the permanent opening venue of the tournament in 2011 when the field expanded to 68 teams, its current format. These First Four games between teams holding the four lowest seeded automatic bids and the four lowest seeded at-large bids play to complete the familiar 64 team bracket.
By the numbers
National Champions: 3
Ohio State University, 1960
University of Cincinnati, 1961, 1962
Runners Up: 6
Ohio State University, 1939, 1961, 1962, 2007
University of Cincinnati, 1963
University of Dayton, 1967
Final 4 Appearances: 19
University of Akron Zips: 4
Final Fours: 0
Bowling Green Falcons: 6
Final Fours: 0