In Columbus, USC-Michigan State provides preview of Big Ten's future
Raised in Badger country, Kobe Johnson’s rooting interest growing up wasn’t too popular with the other locals.
A native of Milwaukee, the USC sophomore guard spent his formative years watching Big Ten basketball. And owing in part to some sustained success on the football field, the 6-6 guard's favorite team was the Ohio State Buckeyes.
“I kind of liked their football team, and I just kind of latched onto them,” Johnson said Thursday from inside the team’s locker room at Nationwide Arena. “Since then, I’ve been kind of a fan. Jared Sullinger, that was my first player. That was my favorite player, and then D’Angelo Russell when he played. Those were my two favorite players.”
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Eventually, though, the west coast called, and Johnson signed with the Pac-12's Trojans as a member of the recruiting class of 2021. And, should he finish out his four seasons at USC, it’s a career that will return to where he’s preparing to open NCAA Tournament play on Friday against No. 7 seed Michigan State – in Columbus, the heart of Big Ten country. At the conclusion of next season, USC and UCLA will switch leagues and join forces with the Buckeyes, the Spartans and the rest of their Big Ten brethren.
It’s going to take some getting used to.
“Someone reminded us when we landed Tuesday night, when we landed in Columbus, ‘Hey, this is going to be the normal trip,’ ” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “It's a longer flight. Colder weather.”
In this case, the Trojans arrived three days before their game and began the process of acclimating to Eastern Standard Time. First-year guard Tre White, a Dallas native, said it took roughly a day and a half to shake off the effects of the four-hour flight across three time zones. Johnson said the Trojans typically have flights that last an hour or two and that they predominantly remain in the same time zone.
“First day, your sleep schedule is all wonky,” White said. “Second day, you get back right.”
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The Big Ten has not finalized the specifics on the cross-country travel that will happen during the heart of conference play, but Enfield said he’s worried about the academic impact on his players with potentially multiple such trips in the course of a season.
“That's the biggest concern, I think, we have looking 18 months from now when we join the Big Ten about traveling,” he said. “It's the academic side of it. The basketball side, your body needs to get adjusted to the time difference and go compete. So we have no idea what the scheduling will be like.”
USC played one Big Ten team this season and took a 64-59 loss to Wisconsin on Nov. 25 in the third-place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis. It was the first game against a Big Ten team since a Nov. 19, 2012 loss to Illinois in the Maui Invitational.
It figures to be an adjustment for the Trojans in 2024-25.
“It should be fun coming into a different conference like the Big Ten,” Johnson said. “Much more physical conference. Should be a good adjustment for us and the team and hopefully the Big Ten. Shake things up a little bit. I think everybody’s excited to make that change.”
Michigan State enters the game 19-12 overall and earned a No. 7 seed. The Trojans, a No. 10 seed, are 22-10. They will play Friday at 12:15 p.m. in the first game of the day.
And for Johnson, this trip has been a walk down memory lane. On a visit to Columbus when he was 12 or 13, Johnson said he got to see inside Value City Arena and peek at where the Buckeyes play. Friday’s game will be at Nationwide Arena, but USC has practiced at Ohio State’s practice gym, he said.
“I think it’s a beautiful city,” he said. “There’s not too much going on; there’s not nothing going on, so I think it’s a great mixture of both. Being able to have that in a city full of college kids is really nice.”