CINCINNATI — George Wilson scanned the NCAA tournament bracket quickly, his eyes focusing on the lines that included Cincinnati and Ohio State. He followed them toward the middle of the page to see if they intersected.
Yes, they did. In the round of 16.
It’s been 50 years since Wilson’s Bearcats beat the Buckeyes for the NCAA championship, a moment commemorated by one of two giant banners hanging from a wall behind a basket in Cincinnati’s on-campus arena. Wilson and his teammates were honored at midcourt during halftime of a game this season.
Fittingly, the attention is extending to the tournament.
“When the brackets came out and I saw there’s a possibility it could be at the Sweet 16, I really started thinking about it,” Wilson said, in a phone interview from his home in Cincinnati. “The other night when they won, it was, ‘Oh, oh!’ It came true for the first time in 50 years.”
A lot of folks all around the state will be watching on Thursday night when they go at it again — finally! — in Boston.
“Obviously, I’m rooting for Ohio State,” said Jerry Lucas, one of the Buckeyes’ stars. “But I think it’ll be a good game.”
They’ve played a few of those. The Final Four was their turf back then.
Cincinnati reached the Final Four with Oscar Robertson in 1959 and 1960, finishing third both years. Ohio State beat California 77-55 to win the title in 1960. The Bearcats pulled off what was considered a major upset in 1961, beating Ohio State 70-65 in Kansas City to win the title.
A year later, they had a title rematch, this time in Louisville. With Wilson guarding John Havlicek and Lucas playing on a bad leg, Cincinnati won 71-59.
Havlicek was only 5 of 14 from the field for 11 points.
“When we played Ohio State, my job was to stay with Havlicek,” Wilson said. “I had nothing else to do that night but stay with Havlicek. If he went to get a drink of water, I was supposed to stay with him. He was one of the greatest players ever so if he got the ball, you’re in trouble.”
Lucas second-guesses his decision to play with an injured left leg, hurt in the semifinal game. He went 5 of 17 for 11 points against Cincinnati, but had 16 rebounds.
“I probably shouldn’t have played,” Lucas said, in a phone interview. “I was taped from ankle to crotch. I hobbled and played anyway.”
Cincinnati reached the title game again in 1963, but blew a 15-point lead and lost to Loyola, Ill., 60-58 in Louisville, ending the Bearcats’ run of titles.
“We were going to win three in a row until we got to the Loyola fiasco,” Wilson said.
A year later, UCLA beat Duke under coach John Wooden, starting its run of domination. UCLA would win nine titles in 10 years.
And, remarkably, the two Ohio teams that once dominated were reduced to history. They’ve played only once in the last 50 years, with Ohio State winning 72-50 in 2006 in a game played in Indianapolis as part of the Wooden Tradition.
“We didn’t have a history of a rivalry or anything on an annual basis,” said Lucas, who grew up in Middletown, Ohio, north of Cincinnati. “It doesn’t happen very often. It’s kind of unique for the two to play each other.”
As they get ready for the long-awaited NCAA rematch, it’s more like revisiting history than renewing a rivalry. The players don’t see it as anything more special than the stakes involved.
“Maybe if it had been a regular-season game, but because it’s in the tournament, it’s just another game in front of us trying to get to New Orleans,” Cincinnati senior forward Yancy Gates, referring to the Final Four.
Those who played in that game 50 years ago aren’t surprised.
“A lot of times, I go out and talk to schools and I’ll say, ‘Well, young man, when we won you weren’t even born,’” Wilson said. “And he’ll say his parents weren’t even born then.”
Same feeling for the players in Columbus.
“I wasn’t even born then,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I was born 6 years afterward. I don’t think those guys are that tuned into it. They may know, but nobody’s asked me about it.”