By JOE KAY
CINCINNATI — Stirred by a pep talk from the school president, the Ohio Bobcats applauded themselves in the locker room and celebrated their trip to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 by chanting: “We are Ohio!”
Not a bad March motto for the whole state.
The nation’s 17th state is the first to send four teams to the NCAA’s round of 16 — the Bobcats, Ohio State, the University of Cincinnati and Xavier. The four come from different conferences and play different styles, but have gone a combined 8-0 in the tournament.
Beware the Buckeyes — all of them.
“It’s super for Ohio basketball,” former Ohio State star Jerry Lucas said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s always been good, and will always be good. This whole region has traditionally had great basketball. To see Ohio be the first to have four in the Sweet 16 — that’s great.”
Seven other states have managed to get three teams into the round of 16, according to STATS LLC: Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Texas, California, North Carolina, Kansas and Tennessee. Ohio has topped them all.
No state has ever had a better opening week in the tournament.
The First Four games were played in Dayton, where President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron watched Western Kentucky pull off an historic comeback in the opener.
The rest of the state has kept up the excitement.
Ohio State — the Big Ten school whose band spells “Ohio” in script at halftime of football games — lived up to its No. 2 seed by beating Loyola, Md., and Gonzaga. Ohio University — the Mid-American Conference representative whose band dances to the “Party Rock Anthem” at halftime — got a 13th seed and became the tournament’s latest mid-major darling.
The Bobcats knocked off Michigan — a result as pleasing on High Street in Columbus as on Court Street in Athens — in their first game, then beat South Florida to get to the round of 16 for the first time since 1964.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati and Xavier — the city rivals who brawled on the court in December — took big strides in refurbishing their seasons and reputations.
The Big East’s Bearcats knocked off Texas and Florida State to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 2001 under coach Bob Huggins. No. 10 seed Xavier, the only Atlantic 10 team left, beat Notre Dame and Lehigh to reach the regional semifinals for the fourth time in five years.
Some of their neighbors are coming along. Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky are supplying seven of the final 16 teams this weekend, another numerical measure of the area’s rich college basketball tradition.
“Oh my gosh, we talk about that all the time,” said Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski, who is on the NCAA tournament selection committee. “Within a 150-mile radius or so, there’s a tremendous concentration of high-level basketball competition and talent, and great coaching and committed programs. I’m not sure this area gets its due in terms of how big college basketball is.
“You hear of Tobacco Road, but this region is as powerful and basketball-committed as any in the country. It’s there for everybody to see at this point based on how the tournament has played out.”
Ohio’s still-standing schools may seem so dissimilar, but there’s less than six degrees of separation between them. Xavier has a hand in much of that.
Buckeyes coach Thad Matta emerged as an up-and-coming coach at Butler — which plays in Hinkle Fieldhouse, where “Hoosiers” was filmed — with John Groce as an assistant. They moved on to Xavier together, then to Ohio State. Groce then made the 90-minute trip to the southeast corner of the state to become the Bobcats’ coach.
Current Xavier coach Chris Mack and Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin grew up in the city, attending Catholic high schools that play in the same conference.
At various times, they’ve all shared a path.
“The fact that so many have come through Xavier at some point of time — there’s a lot of pride in that, honestly,” Bobinski said. “We feel good for their success. We appreciate what they added to Xavier while they were here. The fact that they’re running their own programs and are doing a great job is terrific.
“This week’s unique success is validation for how talented those guys are. They’re proving it.”
At least one of them will be gone on Thursday. Ohio State plays Cincinnati in Boston, a rematch on the 50th anniversary of the Bearcats beating the Buckeyes in the national championship game for the second year in a row.
Just as Ohio provided a memorable start to the tournament, it’ll get the second weekend going in a fitting way.
“I have great respect for their program,” Cronin said of Ohio State. “Other than that, they’re the next team we play. You know, these guys have a goal. We have a goal: We get in the tournament to win it. I want my guys thinking that way because I believe in them.
“It’s important that they know that I believe we’re capable of winning the whole tournament.” At this point, no one would be shocked if an Ohio team is the last one standing.