Given a choice, like most Americans, Chris Holtmann would probably pick the donuts.
Not long after being hired as the Ohio State men’s basketball coach last summer, Holtmann was having a conversation with athletic director Gene Smith about the elephant in the room: how to energize a program that had fallen on hard times. Attendance was dwindling alongside win totals, and multiple ideas were discussed to help jolt Ohio State back into the collective consciousness.
On move-in day, Holtmann likes to pass out donuts to the new students on campus. That was more on his mind than what was ultimately decided upon and will be witnessed tonight: reviving an in-state rivalry of sorts with Cincinnati, a school the Buckeyes hadn’t played in an on-campus regular-season game since 1921 — 15 years after metal rims began to widely replace peach baskets.
“Playing Cincinnati was not at the top of my list when (energizing the program) was being discussed,” Holtmann said Tuesday. “I was thinking, ‘Maybe we can think of some other ways to energize. The donut thing, let’s see what that does. Can that pass for energizing our fan base? I’ll do whatever, but let’s hold off on playing a team like Cincinnati for an opener.’ ”
He was only half-joking. Although Holtmann has always preferred to err on the side of a more challenging nonconference schedule, scheduling a home-and-home series with Cincinnati (the teams will open the 2019-20 season at Value City Arena) will present his young team a significant early test as the Bearcats unveil newly renovated Fifth Third Arena.
It’s an opportunity that Mark Berger, Cincinnati assistant to the head coach who is in charge of scheduling, said had never been discussed during his nine years with the program because the sentiment was there was no point.
Then he received a phone call from Ohio State director of basketball operations David Egelhoff last summer discussing an “Ohio Classic” type of event featuring Ohio State, Cincinnati, Dayton and Xavier, and played in either Columbus or Cleveland. That was further down the road, Berger recalled Egelhoff saying, but how would the Bearcats feel about a home-and-home series with the Buckeyes?
“I was like, ‘There’s no way. He can’t be serious,’ ” Berger said. “To be honest with you, I got a little smirk on my face like, maybe this can happen. I grew up in Cincinnati and have been a longtime Bearcat fan and alum, so to me and coach, being from Cincinnati, it was like, ‘Holy cow, this is amazing.’ ”
Holtmann said he hasn’t discussed why such games haven’t been played since before the Great Depression with any former Ohio State coach. His conversation with Smith didn’t result in a mandate to schedule the game, either.
In a lot of ways, the matchup just made a lot of sense, especially given Cincinnati’s streak of eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
“The quality of their program, no question, was a factor in this game being scheduled,” Holtmann said. “It wouldn’t make sense to do it otherwise. We wouldn’t have played this game if they weren’t a really good program and had recent history of being a good program.”
Talk of any sort of future four-team Ohio event is years down the road. The Big Ten’s move to a 20-game conference schedule further complicates things for the Buckeyes. With all that in mind, Berger made it clear that the Bearcats are open to continuing this series beyond these first two seasons.
“For either of us, there is no downside to this game at all,” he said. “Anything that we can do to continue the series, we are more than willing to do. Whether play it in January or whenever, we are totally opening to continuing the series.”