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Building The Foundation: The 2005-06 Ohio State team gets started

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra

It has been 15 years since a battle-hardened Ohio State team that was short on bodies but long on experience made a run to an outright 2006 Big Ten championship. Behind a senior quartet of Terence Dials, Je’Kel Foster, J.J. Sullinger and Matt Sylvester, the Buckeyes would compile a 26-6 record and earn their first outright league title in 14 years.

To commemorate that season, The Dispatch is launching a season-long feature. Key periods or games will be recalled in online-only oral histories, allowing members of that 2005-06 Ohio State men’s basketball team to take you through the year as they saw it unfold.

As the 2020-21 team continues its preseason with an eye on opening the regular season as soon as Nov. 25, this series gets underway with the Buckeyes beginning practice 15 years ago — or rather, a few months before that. Ohio State was looking to build on a 20-12 season that included an 8-8 record in Big Ten play thanks to the upset of No. 1 and previously undefeated Illinois in the final game of the regular season.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) throws down a dunk against Illinois Fighting Illini forward Kipper Nichols (2) during the 1st half of their game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio on March 5, 2020. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Thad Matta, coach: It’s funny because that season, to me, started on March 6 when Matt hit that shot against Illinois (the season before) because that gave that group of guys a belief they could win. That was such a huge win going forward. This could be maybe my all-time favorite team I ever coached. Those guys were such characters, but they had so much character.

Matt Sylvester, senior forward: The year before, there was just a lot of uncertainty. We had spent a few years getting beat up on and we were down on our luck and our confidence wasn’t high, but then senior year coming off of beating Illinois and putting together a 20-win season, we just knew Thad better and knew his expectations better and it just really helped us be a confident group. There was a lot of excitement within the team.

James “J.J.” Sullinger, senior guard: You go back to our junior year, we were just happy not to be the laughingstock of the university. We knew it was going to be our last hurrah, but we just wanted to build on what we had started the season before. Coach Matta didn’t know what he had inherited, really, and we didn’t know what we got, but going into camp our senior year, we knew what to expect.

Terence Dials, senior center: Obviously the year coach (Jim) O’Brien got fired, I remember not being so good and then coach Matta got the job and we got a little better, having that big win against Illinois at the end of the season and then just having that springboard the previous year and having that momentum of, ‘OK, we can probably do this.’

Brayden Bell, Ohio State University, men's basketball, 2005

A coach for the ages:Ohio State men’s basketball: Thad Matta fondly recalls his major moments

Competition and maturity on display

The Buckeyes would not officially open the season until Nov. 20, when they would host Chicago State. Home exhibition games against Findlay and Ashland on Nov. 6 and 13 would serve as warm-ups as the players started to get a feel for what kind of team they had. Although it was only Matta’s second season, the roster featured four seniors, three of whom were in their fifth years, a fourth-year junior, a senior junior-college transfer and two more juniors. That experience would present itself early and often.

Matta: I could count on one hand how many bad practices they had. They were always in the gym ready to go. They were older, too. You could treat them like men. You could have normal conversations with them. They got it, and I think from that standpoint it made it so much fun. There wasn’t a lot of immaturity. You weren’t dealing with BS.

Dials: We were very old, so that obviously helped our leadership because it wasn’t just one leader, it was across the board. Guys really bought into it and understood that we’ve been a winning team and a losing team. Let’s get back to winning.

Ron Lewis, junior guard: Man, it was competitive. With J.J. and Terence and all them there as well, it was really a season of just, ‘We have to show you guys that we belong here too.’ Especially Je’Kel coming from JUCO. It was one of those, ‘We have to put our foot forward and compete on an everyday basis.’

Dials: I remember the competitiveness, how we competed. Every drill we did, every scrimmage we had against each other, every shooting drill, we did it to compete. Even the smallest, most mundane things, like winning a shooting drill, it’s not going to win you a Big Ten championship but that’s a small, small step in that process of winning a championship.

Lewis: It was a lot of people that had flown under the radar. Me, Je’Kel, J.J. all transferred in. We all had a lot to prove. There’s Ivan (Harris), Matt (who had been there).They may have thought this team wasn’t holding up to what it was supposed to be when they were freshmen and sophomores. I think everybody just took us as we were just a joke, and we didn’t feel that way.

Dials: Most of the time I was put with Matt Terwilliger. He was my primary person on the other team, and he hated probably guarding me. We were two different type of big guys, but we were the only ones that we have so we kind of got stuck guarding each other. I feel kind of bad for him because he went from me to an even more-imposing person in Greg (Oden) the next year, so it didn’t get any better for him.

Matta: Depth was one of the biggest (concerns). We took Sylvester Mayes and Brayden Bell and obviously that didn’t pan out, but they were like the best two because we got the job in July. Everybody had committed already. That’s why, honestly, we spent all our time recruiting Oden and all those guys.

Sullinger: To be totally fair, Braden never really caught on. He never really bought in. Sylvester Mayes, he was honestly probably one of the most talented basketball players I’ve ever been associated with. But the way the team was made up, you didn’t just have to be a good basketball player, you had to be so much more and I think those guys kind of got lost in the sauce a little bit because of some things they may or may not have had control over.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta reacts after calling a time out in the second half of their game against Northwestern at Value City Arena, February 18, 2006.

Buckeyes' most underrated player?

The addition of Lewis, a Bowling Green transfer who was a Columbus Brookhaven graduate, gave the Buckeyes a weapon they had seen throughout the previous season while he sat out to satisfy NCAA transfer rules. He helped fill the void left by Tony Stockman and would primarily come off the bench for the Buckeyes.

Lewis: I’m probably the ultimate competitor, so me coming from Bowling Green, I had to prove something. I come from the MAC and now I’m in the Big Ten so people probably don’t think I’ll be able to play. And I was coming back home, so the expectations for me and for others around me were big.

Sylvester: When Ron transferred in from Bowling Green I didn’t know a whole lot about him. I knew who he was, but I’ll never forget the first open gyms when Ron got there. I remember thinking, ‘Holy crap, this dude can really play.’ He was a huge boost.

Matta: Maybe he gets more accolades than I think, but he may be the most underrated player to ever play at Ohio State. Still to this day, I’m shocked he never got a crack at the NBA. I thought he would be an NBA player.

Dials: It was almost like subtraction but then addition because we had Tony, great offensive player but wasn’t a defender and we all knew that. Having Ron was like a plus: we got a scorer and we also got a great defender and somebody who’s efficient.

Sullinger: I used to go up against Ron all of the time. We had some battles, man. Matt Terwilliger was a huge component of the second team. Ron Lewis led the charge with the second team. He was probably one of the most talented guys we had on that team. Having him come off the bench was huge for us.

Sylvester: Adding Ron and having guys take big strides really upped the level of competition in practice. One of Thad’s big things was every day was a tryout and we had to approach it in that way. I’ll never forget how competitive our practices were. A lot of times there were dust-ups, guys really going at each other and that was really in my opinion due to Je’Kel.

'The missing piece'

A native of Natchez, Mississippi, Foster was a transfer from Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Florida. He played his way into the starting lineup during Matta’s first season but really began to assert himself as the team’s sparkplug during this preseason.

Sylvester: Je’Kel was one of those guys who brought it every day. You never came to practice and Je’Kel was dragging (butt). It just did not happen. He only knew one way to play and that was all-out. You had to match that, and if you didn’t Je’Kel would quite literally scream at us and tell us we were being soft.

Sullinger: I think that was the missing piece that we didn’t have my entire time at Ohio State other than my senior year. Words don’t do it any justice but man, he just knew how to get the most out of you and he knew what he needed to say and whenever he said something it was right on time. If he got on you, it was for a reason and you probably needed to hear it.

Matta: They used to call him ‘Je’Kel Matta’ in practice because in their minds they didn’t think he could do anything wrong in my eyes because I loved the kid so much. Coaching Je’Kel Foster, he was a winner. He was so competitive, but he always had this smile on his face and this really unique laugh.

Comic relief

Cut from a different cloth, junior forward Ivan Harris balanced some of that out.

Sylvester: Ivan was just one of those people. Everything he did was funny whether he was trying or not. There was a goofy element there. He had great facial expressions. I’ll never forget one time Ivan took a really bad shot at practice and most guys would say, ‘My bad.’ But Ivan liked to shoot so much, he would go, ‘My good.’

Staying present

While Ohio State entered the preseason with its own set of expectations, they were significantly altered once the team held its annual media day and found itself besieged by questions about Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook and the heralded ‘Thad Five’ recruiting class that would not arrive until the following year.

Sullinger: I’ll tell you what, as soon as media day hit, that’s all that we talked about from that point on to the end of the season and even beyond. There was never a time that we talked to the media that we didn’t talk about next year, and it started to become a theme inside the locker room that everyone wants to talk about next year, let’s make them talk about this year.

Dials: It was like, guys, we have a whole year here. I know this is a great recruiting class coming in, but for all intents and purposes we don’t care about them. We care about us right now. This is us.

Matta: That was always weighing on them. Everybody was like, ‘Eh, this team is good, but not a big deal. Wait ‘till next year,’ and those guys, man did they make an impact on Ohio State basketball.

Lewis: Over the years Ohio State may not have lived up to what expectations may be and now you’re getting five-star recruits coming in, they may have brushed the season off already. It lit a fire up under us. We’re just not going to be written off like this. They’re going to come in. we know they’re good. They’re (next year's team) going to have to compete and add to the challenge of what we’ve been doing so far.

Coming up next:10 years later: An oral history of the 2006-07 Ohio State men’s basketball team

'We knew what we had'

It wasn’t the only external motivation the Buckeyes were given. When the Big Ten unveiled its preseason poll, the Buckeyes learned they were picked sixth and that some voters had them as low as eighth.

Sylvester: We looked at it as a major slight but there was something about Thad’s demeanor. He kind of really liked that underdog vibe whereas as players we had that chip on our shoulder where, we’re really being disrespected here and I think we ended up using that as motivation.

Lewis: We had experience but I guess they were still thinking, ‘Oh, Ohio State is still trying to develop under Thad Matta and still trying to find their way back to what Ohio State basketball is all about.' I think we were competing with that and we were still always competing with football always being on top.

Ohio State's Matt Terwilliger, 42, goes for a rebound against LSU'S Tyrus Thomas, 12, in the first half of their game at Value City Arena, December 31, 2005.

Dials: It was a little thing. I think the biggest thing for us was the people who interviewed us would talk about the team coming in next year. Obviously being picked eighth was big too, but those are just opinions of people who probably never played basketball so we didn’t really care. We knew what we had in our locker room.

Keeping it low-key

So while it would be weeks until people outside of the inner circle would see what kind of year was in the offing for the Buckeyes, they were quietly building confidence and wondering what the season would bring.

Matta: I’m kind of still learning my way through the Big Ten. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew from the beginning that they were into the season and everything that we were asking them to do, which is a sign of a great team because they weren’t the most talented guys.

Lewis: We didn’t have any egos. I think we all just clicked. Nobody on that squad had an ego to be like, ‘I’m going to be the man.’ Even Terence Dials. He fit the role, he fit right in and led us the whole way, but there was no ego involved. It was just, ‘I’m here to compete and to get better just like everybody else.’

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy