Jeff Boals has an idea what a few Ohio University men’s basketball players are feeling inside today. The Ohio State assistant coach was one of them a couple of decades ago, with one chance to play against the goliath that dwarfs all other schools in the state.
“It’s a huge game,” Boals said. “I was an Ohio kid, and like everyone in Ohio, I wanted to come here (but) wasn’t good enough to play at Ohio State. When you have three central Ohio kids on your team like we did when I played, coming back up here, it’s a big deal.”
Seniors Nick Kellogg of DeSales and Jon Smith of Grove City and junior Stevie Taylor of Gahanna are the three who will return to their hometown tonight when the Bobcats play the Buckeyes for the first time in 19 years, and for the first time ever at Value City Arena.
The last time the programs met — Nov. 16, 1994, at St. John Arena — Boals was a senior and had 14 points and eight rebounds off the bench in a 78-67 Bobcats victory. His teammates included future NBA player Gary Trent of Hamilton Township (26 points, 15 rebounds), Curtis Simmons of Marion-Franklin (nine points, seven rebounds) and Jason Terry of Sparta Highland (nine points, four blocked shots).
The Ohio State program was at its nadir, beginning what would be a 6-22 season after the dismissal of three players and the transfer of two during the offseason.
The Buckeyes are the antithesis of that now, ranked 10th in the Associated Press media poll and with all but two players back from a team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament last season after making the Final Four the year before.
Kellogg, Smith, Taylor and some of their teammates are seasoned, too, having played in the Sweet 16 two years ago and in the National Invitation Tournament last season.
“They’ve been in big games,” Bobcats coach Jim Christian said. “It’s a big game for them and a big game for their families. I think they’re mature enough to handle it, but obviously you always have to keep a pulse on it.”
Kellogg grew up in Westerville and is the son of Clark Kellogg, the Big Ten’s most valuable player at Ohio State in 1982 and currently a university trustee. But his dad will “definitely wear green” tonight, Nick said. “He’s a Buckeye, but family comes first.”
Nick Kellogg said he is trying to not be more excited than before any other game, “But I can’t hide from the fact that I’m from Columbus and my dad played at Ohio State. So there’s a little added pressure.”
“But … it’s the next game on our schedule, so it’s the biggest game, and that’s how we’re approaching it,” Kellogg said. “But yeah, I’m excited to go back home and play in Columbus.”
Which raises the question: Why has it been 19 years since the schools, separated by 80 miles, met on the basketball court? They met 13 times in 26 years, from 1968 through ’94, before the series went cold.
“It’s a good game for our fans, it’s a good game for the state of Ohio basketball. … I would love to have something like this continue,” Christian said. “(But) it’s got to work for both parties. A lot of those decisions are going to come from what’s best for them.”
Ohio State coach Thad Matta is not averse to scheduling Mid-American Conference teams. This will be the sixth such game for the Buckeyes in the past eight seasons.
“A lot of (scheduling) is dates, it’s timing, it’s what we need (from an opponent) at that particular juncture,” Matta said. “But it could be something we do more of.”