I've noticed a few Ohio St. Buckeyes fans coming over and making comments to the effect that they think their basketball program under Thad Matta is superior to Kentucky's program under John Calipari. Make no mistake, Kentucky fans, especially me, respect and appreciate the outstanding job Matta has done at Ohio State, and I also fully accept the conventional wisdom that the Buckeyes are the favorite in Friday's game. Ohio State has had a better year, played in what is ostensibly a tougher conference, and has proven itself the favorite with resounding wins in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
But let me ask our friends from up north this question: If Kentucky suddenly had a football run that caused it to be ranked above the Buckeyes for several years, and even got to several high BCS bowls in a row, would that suddenly mean that Kentucky had a superior football program? Leave aside the travails of Jim Tressell, they have no application to this argument. Would Kentucky be the better program?
The answer is a resounding and clear "No, of course not!" Ohio State is one of the legendary programs in college football. They have a history of success that very few programs anywhere can match, if any. Their fan support, facilities, and institutional support for football is peerless. Their tradition is long, storied, rich and wildly successful.
Now compare the OSU basketball program to Kentucky. I won't go so far as to say OSU basketball is approximately equal to Kentucky football. That would be unfair and unrealistic, as the Buckeyes have a far superior basketball program, comparative to Kentucky football. My point remains, though, that despite all of OSU's recent success on the hardwood, we are talking interstellar distances here. Does it really matter if an object is five light years away, or ten? To humans, not really.
As we left aside the NCAA difficulties of OSU football, we will similarly leave aside the NCAA difficulties of Kentucky and Ohio State basketball over the years. Ohio State has managed 1 NCAA championship since its inception in 1899, and 10 Final Four appearances. Ohio State has been NCAA runner up 4 times, and won the NIT championship twice, and has one Helms Foundation national championship selection. Ohio state has won 1580 games and appeared in the NCAA tournament 28 times.
Kentucky has won seven national titles since they began play in 1903, won two NIT championships (one back when it was more prestigious than the NCAA tournament), 13 Final Fours, runners-up 3 times, and has seven Helms Foundation national championship selections. Kentucky has won 2050 games, and appeared in the NCAA tournament 51 times.
Under Thad Matta, the Buckeyes have done well, but not spectacularly so. If we discount Matta's first season (the Buckeyes were on probation from the Jim O'Brien affair), the Buckeys have been to the NCAA tournament five years out of the six they were eligible. Their average finish in the NCAA tournament during those years OSU went (not including this one) has been the Sweet Sixteen.
Calipari has only been at Kentucky for two years, but if you look at his last five prior to this one, Calipari's finish has been 3.2, or the Elite Eight plus. Not only that, Calipari has been to the NCAA tournament every single year in the last five, and has never finished worse than the sweet sixteen during that time. Both Calipari and Matta have had NCAA runner-up finishes during that period.
Lets take a look at average recruiting classes. Thad Matta, from 2004-2010, has averaged 7 out of 12. Calipari has averaged 5.71 out of 12 for the same period, and has recruited the #1 class in America 3 straight times including next year's class. Thad Matta has never had an RSCI #1 class at Ohio State. For 2011, Matta doesn't have a single player he's signed ranked in the RSCI top 25.
In the final analysis, Ohio State has been an outstanding basketball program over the years. I would certainly rank them in the top 15 in America. With that said, they are not, by any means, the equal of Kentucky even now, at what is probably one of their peak points in history. Even though this year's OSU team is arguably better than this year's Kentucky team, few would claim that their players are more talented, or more skilled. Ohio State is more mature and plays very well as a team, mostly because their players have been together longer.
Win or lose on Friday, and win or lose in the rest of the tournament, Ohio State is not at Kentucky's level as a program. Even if they win the national championship, the Buckeyes have to manage several more championships even to have an argument. This OSU team is very good, but this may wind up being the worst Kentucky team that takes the court for the foreseeable future. Only Enes Kanter's absence makes Kentucky even nominally inferior to Ohio State this year.
Just so we have all that straight.