Competitive Culture

Led by Cardale Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and the legendary Urban Meyer, Ohio State made short work of the first four-team playoff in college football history. After needing each of the 59 points they hung on a very tough Wisconsin team in the Big Ten final to qualify for the No. 4 seed, the Buckeyes then beat Alabama and Oregon by a combined score of 84-55.

Among Buckeye Nation’s legion of supporters who celebrated the victory—a group that includes LeBron James, John Legend and many more—was a freshman sensation from Louisville, KY, named D’Angelo Russell. Russell arrived in Columbus as a McDonald’s All-American this summer and has more than lived up to all hype and expectations.

On Monday night, however—with the country watching his friends line up against Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks—Russell was a fan just like anybody else.

But unlike some fans that may have continued to pour their celebratory passion into the wee hours of the following morning, Russell and his teammates are channeling the excitement for Ohio State in other ways.

“It definitely does give us extra energy that we do feed off,” Russell told SLAM, with respect to watching his football brothers from OSU ball out in the National Championship. “We’re just trying to continue to bring our program to that level. They receive a lot of attention for what they do on the field and we’re continuing to work to accomplish the same things.”

That competitive bond between athletes has helped lead to a shift of sorts throughout major college athletics. No longer is Ohio State, and other power-colleges or universities like it, simply a “football school” or “basketball school” exclusively. That trend is something coach Thad Matta agrees helps create a competitive culture throughout the athletic program in Columbus.

“Those guys are very close with the football players,” Matta said, of Russell and his OSU teammates. “Going into the Alabama game, I don’t have a lot of time to watch different teams, but they broke down what had to happen for us to win that game leading up to it for me. Then afterwards, I heard them talking about the game in the locker room. So I do think that energy and excitement is contagious.”

Russell, one of five freshmen to be named to the midseason Wooden Award Top 25 list, is averaging 18.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.6 assists for a Buckeye team currently sitting at 14-4. He also leads his team in minutes played along with scoring, and is shooting 44 percent on a team-leading 109 three-point field-goal attempts. He, like the young, third-string quarterback from Glenville High School in Cleveland, is another example of an emerging talent learning and growing quickly on a national stage.

“It’s important to bring it every game,” Russell noted, in regards to what he’s learned so far at OSU. “You have to value the ball and value every possession. Doing that is a key to winning at this level. I feel like I continue to get better every game. If I do something that wasn’t so good, I look at the film and try to get better at it right away. I really pride myself on that.”

Scoonie Penn, a Big 10 Network College Basketball Analyst and former All-American from the Ohio State University, described Russell early on during training camp as simply, “the real deal,” when I first asked how good he could be via text. Penn also agrees that the competitive culture athletically continues to help elevate both programs at his alma mater.

“You go to Ohio State to compete with and against the very best in America,” said Penn, who led OSU to the Final Four in 1999. “Within that spirit of competition, that’s how you become collectively great. So whether it’s football pushing basketball, or basketball pushing football, or other sports throughout the University, you’re continually pulling for each other and inspiring your friends to get better.”

Less than 24 hours after the football team raised the National Championship trophy in Dallas—with NBA MVP LeBron James celebrating in a luxury box alongside Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and other friends from Ohio—Russell and the basketball squad tipped off against their hated rivals from Ann Arbor, MI. The super-frosh finished with 21 points against the Wolverines to go along with 6 assists and 4 rebounds.

Aiding in the 71-52 Buckeye victory was Sam Thompson (12 points) and Amir Williams (10 points) who also added five rebounds and three blocks. Williams had just watched LeBron James wear his same No. 23 on the back of an Ohio State football jersey on national television at Dallas Cowboys Stadium the night before.

“It is cool to have the best player in the world as a part of your support group,” Russell said, when asked about what seeing James rep OSU like that means to he and his teammates. “I see him around every so often. Not everybody has that opportunity so we’re definitely lucky here.”

James has had an honorary locker in the Ohio State men’s basketball locker room for the past few seasons. Matta, who led OSU to the Final Four twice since arriving in 2004—to go along with winning a Big Ten title six times—certainly agrees that it is cool to have James linked with his team, university and players.

“I think when you have the best player in the world, and he has an affiliation with your program and university, I think it’s a tremendous thing for all of us,” Matta said of LeBron’s support for OSU. “LeBron had said he would’ve gone to Ohio State had he gone to college and to see his passion for the university, it means a great deal to us.”

The love, as we know, is obviously mutual between LeBron and his home state’s biggest university. That bond may have also made James hesitant to offer a final score prediction when I asked him for one this past Friday, before the eventual 42-20 outcome was decided.

“Oh man, I’m not good at picking the score,” James told SLAM, prior to the National Championship game on Monday. “I’m just hoping for the best. I really love those guys, I love Ohio State.”

Following the Buckeyes victory in Dallas, James returned to action after missing eight games with lower back and knee strains to finish with 33 points in 37 minutes on 11-18 shooting for the Cavaliers. He also collected 7 rebounds and dished out 5 assists, while demonstrating a noticeably increased burst out on the court. Despite the effort, however, the Cavs (19-20) fell short of the Phoenix Suns out west by a score of 107-100.

Russell, Matta and Buckeye Nation are back on the floor this Saturday for a matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes. Cavs are up next on Thursday in L.A. against the Lakers.