The old men in their V-neck sweaters walked off the floor even as the young men in their glistening gray uniforms stood to the side, ready to replace them.
The changing of the guards, forwards and centers 60 years in the making.
It was quite the striking juxtaposition: members of the Ohio State 1960 national championship team standing side by side at midcourt, framed against the 2019-20 Buckeyes, whose lean bodies contrasted the slumping shoulders of the former athletes who are in their 80s or close to it. Shiny red-and-white high-tops vs. scuffed loafers. Light and dark hair vs. gray or no hair.
Bob Knight stared at the floor, save for a brief salute to the Value City Arena crowd of 16,382 who got to see the Buckeyes defeat Illinois 71-63 on Thursday but also were treated to a halftime celebration honoring the 1960 champions.
Knight appeared feebler than the eight former teammates who joined him, the fire and glare that once defined him replaced by quiet and half a smile.
"It was cool to see Bob Knight back here," said Danny Hummer, who, with Andre Wesson, was recognized on Senior Night.
Cool and moving. My only complaint was with Brutus Buckeye, whose animated behavior during the recognition ceremony distracted from the more dignified backdrop of the moment. But that’s a small quibble. Mostly what stood out was the lineup of individual and team greatness. Knight, who played backup guard; Jerry Lucas, among the best college players in history; Mel Nowell, Dick Furry and Joe Roberts. Joining them were Gary Milliken, David Barker, Howard Nourse, Gary Gearhart and team manager Mike Sorocak. Beth Havlicek and Tina Siegfried attended as representatives of their deceased husbands, John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried.
As the ceremony ended, the current Buckeyes emerged. So different. So young. Yet these two groups one comprising former national champions and the other hoping to join them by becoming OSU’s second NCAA title team share a belief in basketball basics, if not elasticity of sinew.
"That’s how you win. Got to play that defense," said Roberts, a senior forward on the 1960 team that held opponents to fewer than 70 points per game during the regular season and won by an average score of 84-64 during the 1960 NCAA Tournament.
"I like to see good defense, and when they’re on their game defensively, with everybody sliding and coordinating the defense, they’re really good," Roberts said of the current Buckeyes.
Ohio State slid and coordinated its way to a No. 2 ranking in December before losing six of seven games. By late January, making the NCAA Tournament appeared increasingly out of reach. Lack of toughness defined the team, and defense is mostly about toughness.
During the skid, members of the 1960 team watched and winced.
"When they let somebody slide through for the whole game, they’re not that good," Roberts said.
Lucas spoke before the game about what the expectations should be for this or any Ohio State team.
"To win the national championship," he said. "Obviously, that hasn’t happened in a while, but that has to be the hope. This is a great team. They’ve been a little iffy at times, but they have talent, especially defensively. When they clamp guys down defensively, they do well, and we’re expecting that tonight."
They mostly got what they expected. Illinois ran fast and loose for one half but had no place to go after intermission. Nowhere was Ohio State’s defensive uptick more evident than in the play of sophomore guard Luther Muhammad, who finished at plus-1 rating after registering a minus-14 for the first half, meaning the Buckeyes were a point better than the Illini when Muhammad was on the floor.
"Phenomenal," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said of Muhammad’s second-half defensive effort, which included holding Illinois’ leading scorer, Ayo Dosunmu, scoreless the last 11:10. "He just really, really played with a better motor."
Muhammad only scored one point, but Holtmann said he would take the trade-off.
"I thought Luther’s defense was up there as a significant difference in the game," he said.
The Buckeyes also grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, a number that left Illini coach Brad Underwood shaking his head, unable to explain how his team, ranked second in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding (12.4 per game) was outworked in that category by the Buckeyes, 16-9.
In a word: defense.
Might the Buckeyes have been inspired by the 1960 champs? Underwood thought it probable. After all, how are you not inspired by a player like Lucas, who three times grabbed 30 rebounds in a game?
"I knew it was crazy," Wesson said of Lucas’ rebounding ability.
The Buckeyes have won four in a row and nine of their past 11. Crazy is right.