Saturday, December 25, 2010

On The Road: Ohio State

Growing up in a sports-loving household in Michigan, it's nature to hate Ohio State. While that hatred is stronger for those with family ties to the University of Michigan, it looms big for Michigan State folks too. Most of it stems from the old rivalries and the sports matches that are guaranteed every year due to membership in the Big Ten, but it's also about the State of Michigan versus the State of Ohio. Michiganders have a weird relationship with the Buckeye State. It goes back centuries to the Toledo War, a two-state dispute over a strip of land that is now Toledo. It's a story most children in Michigan learn during state history activities in elementary school and is remembered as the means by which Michigan acquired the Upper Peninsula in exchange for the tiny Toledo strip. Though Michigan clearly won that battle in the long-term, folks hailing from the Great Lakes State must be born with a hate for anything to do with Ohio, including its flagship institution.

Up until I got to Oakland University, my own lenses were painted maize and blue. After a year on the scene, I was fully bought-in to the mid-major life and retired any apparel I had with that familiar "M" logo. At the same time, I never got over my distaste for Ohio State, even as I completely distanced myself from college football, the one sport where hatred for OSU was strongest. Their basketball team always had individual players I enjoyed watching, but I still could not actively root for them. And it wasn't just sports. When I was winnowing down my list of graduate schools to apply to, I left off Ohio State because I just couldn't see myself getting down with the scarlet and grey. "Yuck," I remember thinking, even as I tried to tell myself it didn't really matter. But I guess you can't change your genes.

A few friends and I, all Michigan born-and-raised, felt that the opportunity to cheer on Oakland against Ohio State was too good a chance to turn down, especially with no school or work obligations the next day. Even though it was a non-conference game, we figured our deep-seated dislike for the Buckeyes would be reason enough to get pumped up for the game and make it like traveling to a conference game against a heated rival. Well, were we wrong.

Value City Arena is a beautiful facility, hands down. But to say that it has anything to do with college basketball tradition is a bit far-fetched. It's an NBA-sized arena, and it feels like one, too. The seats are cushy, but unless you've got a few twenties, the views are not as comforable as the seats. Additionally, the pre-game production value was on par with that of most NBA teams, and the only thing missing was an exotic half-time show. The absence of any students or live band dampened the experience further. The December 23rd date didn't help much in this regard, but it made me realize that perhaps one of the benefits of Oakland being a regional, largely commuter-based school is that the band and at least a few dozen student section members will show up to games over break to preserve the college basketball feel of the O'rena. As one of the top public universities in the nation, OSU has a much broader scope and thus might not have that luxury, or at least it did not on this particular evening. As one of the top teams in the country, the students will probably be out in full force during Big Ten home games, and one can hardly blame them for not wanting to come out for some school they would probably blow-out, a task OSU had no trouble accomplishing over Oakland.

My impressions of Value City Arena as NBA-esque come from a lens that enjoys compact stadiums and tight-knittedness among fans at college basketball games. Mackey Court and Crisler Arena better accomplished this as far as Big Ten arenas have gone this year, but at this level it's all about maximizing revenues, and Ohio State's venue clearly takes the cake in that regard with its higher ticket prices and larger capacity. For what it's worth, the Ohio State fans were a bit more energetic during the game than Michigan fans in Ann Arbor. Whereas the UofM faithful failed to stand and cheer in unison until the final minutes of the game against Oakland, OSU fans were much more active, even as most of the crowd consisted of families. Additionally, most of the fans, at least in our section of the upper bowl, were quite respectful and peacefully allowed us Grizzlies fans to cheer on the team, even when they cut the lead to single-digits at the end of the first half and it looked like we might have had a "game." The second half was far more comical, and despite our disappointment as fans in the outcome, we cheered in the waning minutes for the team to cut the margin to under 30 points. Thankfully, Travis Bader knocked down a jumper with eight seconds left that put the OSU win margin to 29 points.

Ohio State has a big-time arena for a big-time program, and the team certainly looked big-time against Oakland on Thursday night. While it would have been amazing to witness Oakland come out a bit more strong, we ultimately knew as fans that the outcome of the game was the result of a brutal non-conference schedule that ended with four games in six days. While I'm no closer to rooting for the Buckeyes, I certainly left the game with an appreciation for their on-court product. Any team that plays stifling defense, commits few turnovers, effectively passes the ball, and relies on a post-up big-man will usually win my favor. But at the conclusion of the day, sitting there looking around that arena and seeing all of its amenities and program resources, the realization of how easy it is to be a fan of a big-time program really hits you. As Oakland fans, we can make an eight-hour round trip just to be a blip of black amongst a sea of scarlet for a measly two hours that will almost always end in a loss. The Ohio State fans, meanwhile, can count the "w" as one more needed to get to the 30 or so needed to secure a #1 seed in March. Boy, we sure are different.

I may have entered college with a distaste for Ohio State based on my prior allegiances to Michigan, but as my affinity for Oakland and the mid-major mantra has grown stronger, any dislike I have for the Buckeyes is the same I have for most big-time programs. I still enjoy the product they put on the floor as a fan of basketball, but it's impossible for me to sympathize with their fans after an upset loss or early exit from a tournament. It's just too easy to root for the team with the giant coffers. However, there is no doubting what it is like for a program to have tens of thousands of people supporting it. The Oakland program may aspire to one day reach that point of prominence, and if there is one thing I have been left wondering after traveling to some non-conference road games this year it is how a program can simultaneously capture a bigger audience while retaining its authenticity. Perhaps only further travels will tell.

Very nice campus, unique from other Big Ten campuses I have visited like Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. Highlight was visiting The Oval which had sidewalks that seemingly led to everywhere.
Outside of the arena. Oakland's player portraits on the doors of the O'rena pale in comparison to the player banner draped over the facade of Value City Arena.
Production value!
Even though it lacked a college basketball atmosphere, it would be fun to visit this place during a sold-out Big Ten game because I'm sure it would be electric with so many seats available. Though the sightlines were not as great as Crisler or Mackey, still had no trouble watching the game from high up.