CHICAGO – The United Center had a pretty clear visual divide for Friday morning’s quarterfinal matchup between No. 1 seed Michigan State and No. 8 seed Ohio State. Buckeye fans were decked out in scarlet, the Spartan faithful in green.
Then there were members of the Ahrens family, who looked like a Christmas tree.
Kyle Ahrens, 6-6, is a redshirt junior guard at Michigan State, a key reserve and occasional spot starter for the Spartans who averages 5.1 points per game for the nation’s No. 6 team.
His younger brother Justin is a 6-5 freshman forward who comes off the bench for Ohio State after setting school records at Versailles High School for career points, 3-pointers, rebounds and assists.
Before January, they’d never competed against each other.
In practice and in the driveway, sure, but never in any official capacity.
Kyle was a senior at Versailles, averaging 30 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, while Justin was a freshman.
On Friday, they were competing for a spot in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Kevin Ahrens, their father, sat behind Michigan State’s bench, along with their grandparents, Bill and Barbara.
“We split it up as far as what we wear and support the boys both ways,” Kevin Ahrens said.
He wore an Ohio State hat and a Michigan State quarter-zip jacket.
Bill had to get creative after not bringing a green shirt, so he wore a red dress shirt with Michigan State suspenders and a Spartans hat. Barbara wore a vest with a Michigan State logo on the left side and an Ohio State logo on the right, but she wasn’t shy about rooting for one grandson over the other.
“I tell you what,” she said. “Kyle is already a junior, so I figured I want ‘Go Green’ for Michigan State, I want them to win so I hope Kyle wins and Justin, you (can) later.”
After Michigan State’s 77-70 win, Kyle said, “My dad loves the Michigan State program so I can always expect him to be on my side,” before adding, “He’s fifty-fifty.”
“He wants us both to do well. He probably wanted Ohio State just to get them a better tournament draw.”
So the Ahrens family was conflicted – from their clothing choices to their seating arrangement to whose team, if any, they were supporting.
During the regular season, when Michigan State visited Ohio State in January before the Buckeyes made the return trip in February, Kyle and Justin’s parents would sit behind the home team’s bench.
“Just kind of weird seeing him on the opposite side,” Kyle said, “but it’s a blessing.”
There’s some trash talk “here and there” between the brothers, especially if they happen to defend each other, but Kyle is hopeful that Justin’s Buckeyes will make the NCAA Tournament.
“Hopefully they’re in so my brother can live his dream of playing in the tournament,” Kyle said.
When Justin Ahrens, who averages just 3.4 points per game as a freshman, scored a career-high 29 points in Ohio State’s blowout win over Iowa in late February, Kyle and his roommates were watching in their living room.
“I was going nuts,” he said. “When he started out 0-for-4, his mindset is just keep shooting. He’s got great confidence and everything, so just to see him hit that first one, I’m like, ‘OK.’ Then once he hit his third or fourth, I felt so happy for him.
“I was going crazy, I was texting him during the game just so he got it. Just to let him know how proud I am of him, just sticking through the process. He deserved it.”
The two brothers stay in close contact between texting and playing Fortnite together on Xbox, which made Friday even weirder.
“We’re always playing video games together so we’re always competing with each other one way or another and usually we’re on a team in a video game,” Kyle said, “so it’s just weird to see him out there. All the work we put in growing up, we shared a bedroom since I was a junior in high school, so we were always together.
“It’s just kinda cool to see him build his name there.”