Building The Foundation: The 2005-06 Buckeyes open the season on a winning streak
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, and featuring significant contributions from the likes of Jamar Butler, Ivan Harris, Ron Lewis and Matt Terwilliger, 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.
Building The Foundation:The 2005-06 Ohio State team gets started
As we prepare to put an end to the 2020 calendar year, the series continues today with a look at the first half of a non-conference schedule that took the Buckeyes across the country as they piled up the wins in preparation for Big Ten play.
It started with an 81-52 season-opening win against Chicago State on November 20, 2005. In his first game after sitting out the 2004-05 season to satisfy NCAA rules after transferring from Bowling Green with two years of remaining eligibility, Lewis tied Foster with a team-high 16 points as four Buckeyes finished in double figures.
Coach Thad Matta: I thought I had a pretty good feel for the team. I don’t think I knew they were going to be as good as they became. You finally do get to the point where you just wanna play somebody else.
Junior guard Ron Lewis: It was like, let’s show everybody who we are. I remember having a dunk off the glass in that game from Je’Kel. I think it was just a statement game, we’re here, this is who we have, this is who Ohio State is going to be for the future.
Senior forward Matt Sylvester: We had a good preseason and a new strength coach in Dave Richardson. I just think we felt healthy and strong and we were ready to go. I can’t say I have real vivid memories of that game, which probably means I wasn’t great. I didn’t start that year shooting the ball well.
The game would serve as a tune-up for a game against Matta’s former school. Ohio State hosted Butler two days after its opener against Chicago State, and Matta had a few reasons for scheduling the game.
Matta: When we signed that Butler deal, we were gonna take Greg (Oden) and Michael (Conley) home to Indianapolis. We played them this year, then we had to take a year off. We played Cincinnati over in Indianapolis (the next year) and I was able to somehow get Butler in. Part of the deal was, if I moved the game Butler could play on national television against Gonzaga. I got them on national television and we didn’t take Greg and Michael, they came to play the Cincinnati game.
Senior center Terence Dials: I remember how Thad was very passionate about we need to win this game, because it was his former team. Butler at the time, they were probably still considered a mid-major. They played that way, so it was a different style for us.
Butler would hit 13 three-pointers, three of them in the final 1:55 as the Bulldogs overcame an 11-point deficit to force overtime. The Buckeyes would prevail in overtime, 79-69, as Dials finished with 24 points and Ohio State’s Butler scored nine of his 16 points during overtime. It was Ohio State’s first overtime win since a win at Wisconsin to open the 1999-2000 Big Ten season, ending a six-game losing streak.
Senior guard James "J.J." Sullinger: Oh, wow. I didn’t even know that. They played us so tough. It was at home and we didn’t overlook them or underestimate them, they just came and played a really good game. We just couldn’t shake ‘em. When we did get that win, we did feel good about it because we knew we beat a good team.
Dials: The Butler game helped us with confidence, helped us to know that we have some tough guys. that’s what you need in situations like that, guys who are tough, who won’t give up, who will do some of the nasty stuff on the court over the course of the game in order to be successful. We had that.
Matta: We were up like 10 and they started hitting threes on us. We were up three and Sylvester Mayes let a guy shoot a three as opposed to pressuring him into a two at the end of the game. I think he missed it and we won. I was really upset after the game because it never should’ve been that close and it was probably a good thing for us in terms of getting an overtime win for that team.
After a home win against Virginia Tech in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Buckeyes headed to Philadelphia to play St. Joe’s at the Palestra. Matta, though, had to make a detour in Indianapolis.
Matta: What’s funny about that game, it’s weird I remember this, but we left that Friday and on that Friday Ohio State made me go to Indianapolis all day and I sat in the (NCAA infractions) hearing. Why I was there, still to this day I have no idea why they made me go to that. I sat for 7-8 hours in a ballroom in a hotel. Jim O’Brien was 10 feet away from me and I was like, why am I here?
Dials: I don’t think it registered with us because our assistant coaches had so much responsibility at the time. John Groce was calling a lot of plays. Alan Major was one of the great scouts and defensive guys. It didn’t affect us at all. I don’t even remember him not being there, to be honest with you.
Sylvester: I’ll never forget on that trip, we had this bus driver and those tight streets of Philly, we were going out to eat somewhere as a team and the bus driver was just bouncing off of cars on one of these streets. He hit like three or four cars. And no, we didn’t stop, and no one really said anything about it. I’ll never forget us bouncing off a few cars on this charter bus.
Ohio State won, 81-74, as Foster had 24 points and 10 rebounds.
Lewis: It’s not really like a Big Ten atmosphere. It’s very different. The style of play, for one, and the crowd. The way that we pulled that out was like, all right, we’re doing something here.
Sullinger: I remember coming back on the plane thinking to ourselves, we were feeling really confident going into what was going to soon be Big Ten play.
Matta: As I look back, the opportunity for our guys to play in Hinkle Fieldhouse or the Palestra, those are legendary things they’ll have for the rest of their life.
Dials: I’m going to be honest with you: it didn’t mean that much to me at the time because St. Joe’s wasn’t a great team. Now I look back and say, ‘Oh, I played in one of the best venues in college basketball, one of the most historic venues.’ At the time, we didn’t care at all.
The game continued what had been a concerning trend for the Buckeyes, who let a double-digit lead slip away and had to fight to close out the win. At the time, Sullinger said the Buckeyes would have lost those types of games during previous seasons. Foster, who would soon be named Big Ten player of the week, was a catalyst.
Matta: That’s a heck of a point by him. That team was developing every day as it moved on. They were so fun to coach, but there were struggles. To their credit, because they were so mature, they learned from it.
Sullinger: Having a Je’Kel Foster on your team, it’s a blessing. At the time it might not seem that way because he’s all in your grill, but he knew exactly what to say and who to say it to to get the results that we needed. We knew what it took to be in that moment. We had great leadership.
Sylvester: We had Je’Kel’s emergence going on and that was new. Then obviously we had Terence and kind of the rest of us were role guys. at the same time, we were balanced. We had that secondary group of guys that had the capability every once in a while to go off.
Foster’s emergence was aided by the fact that teams were keying on Dials, who would go on to be named Big Ten player of the year, down low.
Dials: When you’re playing low majors their big guy’s not going to be a Big Ten-caliber big guy. It was less one-on-one and more double teams. Some teams played a lot of zone action to force our shooters to shoot.
Sullinger: Terence was a big fella, man, so they did the right thing. With our maturity and our experience, we took advantage of it a little bit. We got a lot of looks that we liked.
Matta: That was a good thing for us because we were shooting the ball real well and Jamar should shoot it well, too. There was a play in that Gardner-Webb game that I showed for years to teams of (Jamar’s) toughness where he back-tipped a ball and dove on it and flipped it up to Ron. It was a toughness thing we’d always show our guys. He was very quiet, but man did he have an element of toughness to him that was just awesome that he brought to the table.
Dials: One of the things I regret in my college career was, those games in the non-conference weren’t, for me personally, games I looked forward to. It was just another game to get to the Big Ten season. I lived for that. I did not live for playing Chicago State and Lowell, Lowell UMass or whatever. I didn’t mark it on the calendar, and I regret that because I should’ve played a lot harder during those games.
St. Joe’s wasn’t the only away game on the non-conference schedule. After home wins against Norfolk State and Belmont, Ohio State took a 6-0 record to Iowa to face Iowa State for a semi-neutral site game played 35 miles south of campus. With six minutes to play, the Buckeyes trailed the Cyclones by eight points but scored on 10 of their final 11 possessions in a 70-67 win.
Matta: The Iowa State game, when they called us they were opening up a building in Des Moines and we’d like to do a home-and-home but we’re going to play ours in Des Moines. So I’m like, wait a minute, then you’re going to come back to the Schottenstein center? Heck yeah, we’ll do that.
Sullinger: It was definitely a hostile crowd. They definitely came to play. We went and grabbed that game.
Sylvester: The way Thad would talk us up as an underdog, that hey, you’re going to go into this building and there’s going to be nobody that wants you to win this game. You’ve gotta be road warriors, and that became kind of one of our calling cards that we would repeat that phrase. After that Iowa State game, we kind of felt it.
The win moved the Buckeyes to 7-0, but there was still plenty of work to be done.
Matta: We were winning, but I didn’t think we were playing great. Taking care of the ball, we were a pretty good shooting team. I remember trying to convince them, hey guys, if we just take care of it, we’re going to score more points. Then the rebounding, Matt and Ivan at the 4 were not great rebounders. Those were things getting ready for Big Ten play where we knew we had to shore those things up.