Building The Foundation: Ohio State closes out first outright Big Ten title in 14 years
Editor's note: 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. This is the fifth installment in a series recalling that season.
After an undefeated start through 11 games, the Buckeyes had battled through a rough patch and were sitting at 14-3 overall and 4-3 in Big Ten play while external perception grew that this team had already peaked. Ohio State returned home after a 67-62 loss at Iowa to face Florida A&M in a non-conference game that would prove the catalyst for both a second-half surge and a fashion statement.
Thad Matta, coach: I think we had a bye week and I wasn’t accustomed to bye weeks and I didn’t want to take a week off so we added that game right there. It was a great thing to do at that particular part of the season.
Jamar Butler, sophomore guard: We knew the start of that Big Ten schedule was brutal. I don’t want to down a team, but almost a confidence booster. You get in the middle of that, that heat we were going through in the Big Ten, that (game) was huge for us.
James “J.J.” Sullinger tied a career high with 24 points while also debuting his full-length white tights as part of his uniform.
Terence Dials, senior center: I’m walking by the video room and I see him on the computer looking up something. He was on the NCAA website looking up bylaws and rules. He was looking up all this stuff because he had bought some white tights and up until this point no one has worn white tights in college games. Throughout warmups, he keeps his pants on so no one can tell him he has to go change. Then, when it’s time to start the game, he rips them off and he has on these white tights and it was a whole thing with him.
Sullinger: I was wearing high socks for a while, trying to see if anyone would say anything. I wore socks all the way up to my knees and my shorts were really long. That was the first time I wore my tights and I actually had a career high, so I remember that game well.
The win against the Rattlers was Ohio State’s final game of January. As the calendar flipped, Matta sat down with his seniors to remind them of the ticking clock that was their final seasons.
Matta: I wanted to get those guys’ minds right to make the run down the stretch that we needed to make, because we had proven that we could do it. They had proven that we could play with just about anybody in the country.
Matt Sylvester, senior forward: As an 18-to-22-year-old, you know the clock is running out but you also have youthful bliss and don’t even know it. I do remember that yeah, it’s coming to an end, but you still have a lot of basketball left and as a confident team you’re hoping to play deep into March.
Dials: What probably turned my season around was a conversation I had with Bill Hosket. He was on a road trip with us … and we’re in the lobby waiting for the bus to come to take us to the arena and he’s talking to me and he’s just like, ‘I remember my senior season and how fast it goes. You want to make your mark as someone that Ohio State is always gonna remember. You need to do more. Score more, get more rebounds, do more, be more dominant,’ and it resonated with me. I don’t know why, but I could really feel the clock ticking as I was talking to him like, ‘Jeeze, he’s right.’ ”
The Buckeyes would win a pivotal road game against No. 22 Michigan, improving to 17-3 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten after hitting 15 threes against the Wolverines. In addition to the rivalry itself, the pregame festivities added some juice for Ohio State.
Sullinger: I remember a fan saying something really vulgar to Jamar Butler’s parents and we heard it and that just fired us up. We were out for blood that game. We were not losing that game.
Butler: They called our parents ugly and talked about my mom, and out there on the court there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t go up there and do anything, so I took it out on them on the court.
Ron Lewis, junior guard: We took it as disrespectful, the things that were going on. I played at Michigan before when I played at Bowling Green and we lost. Coach (Dan) Dakich kept us in the locker room for three hours, so that’s all I was thinking about, getting back to that place and winning.
During the first half, TV cameras caught senior guard Je'Kel Foster giving Dials an earful during a timeout.
Dials: I was playing like crap. When I came to the bench, Je’Kel got after me, telling me stuff I can’t mention. Some choice words. That was the type of team we had: he could do that. I took his criticism and went back out there and tried to play better.
Foster: I don’t really remember. That was so long ago, man. Knowing me, I was probably trying to tell him to shoot more or be confident or something like that. Terence played really well that year.
Butler finished with a team-high 20 points. The win produced a classic photo of Matta and Foster sharing a sideline laugh that still hangs in the coach’s home office.
Matta: We couldn’t miss. It’s late game, we’re up 10, they’re fouling us, and he misses a free throw. They go down, they foul us again. I call him over and say, ‘Je’Kel, if you get fouled again, just scoot back.’
Foster: I’m falling out laughing on the sidelines. The timing of it and where we were, I wasn’t expecting him to say anything like that. It was a great moment though.
The Buckeyes would beat Illinois at home for a third straight win, lose at Wisconsin and then close the season with a five-game winning streak. A 79-68 win at Michigan State moved them into a tie for first place with three games to play.
Sullinger: I just remember how dejected the Izzone was. I’d never seen anything like that. They were in the fight for a piece of the Big Ten too.
Sylvester: Mike Vrabel came on that trip with us. Before the game, he gave us a speech that only a football player could give. He’s screaming and pounding his chest. Basketball speeches get fired up, but football speeches are on a whole other level. He gave us just a gnarly pregame speech.
Dials sat for a lengthy spell during the second half with four fouls as backup Matt Terwilliger logged 12 effective minutes despite scoring just one point. He would undergo an appendectomy following the regular season and wouldn’t return until the final game of the season.
Butler: That roster that Michigan State had, they had more mobile bigs. Terence was more back to the basket. You look at how Terwilliger played, he was more of a pick-and-pop mobile.
Matta: Even Terence was like, ‘Leave him in there, he’s doing a great job.’ He was sort of coming into his own. I was like, ‘God, that’s a good thing he’s playing well now as we’re getting ready to head into the tournament.’ When he went down, that crushed our team.
Terwilliger’s absence was particularly felt because the Buckeyes did not have a deep bench, and the minutes would add up. After hitting 42.8 percent of their threes through their first 21 games, Ohio State would make less than 25% of its threes in five of the final six games.
Foster: I take a lot of blame for that because I was playing well and a lot of the team started depending on my shot. My legs, I just didn’t have it down the stretch when I really needed it. I guess it came from all the work we put in to get where we needed to. Legs were gone, I guess.
Sylvester: I was a mess. I was probably missing one or two practices a week where I was literally on the sideline stretching and using a heat pad and having spasms all the time. I wasn’t running well. I was in the process of breaking down.
The Buckeyes would clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title with a road win against Northwestern in the penultimate game of the regular season. Ohio State would eke out a three-point win in front of three fanbases: an Illinois contingent was on hand rooting for the Wildcats because a Buckeye loss would help their bid for a share of the title.
Dials: That was a first, but I guess give them credit. They’re a loyal fan base.
Sullinger: They were all the way at the top and they were the loudest fans there. They were chanting their fight song or their chant or whatever, but they did it the whole game. All it did was fuel our fire, man.
Lewis would seal the game with a go-ahead layup with 10.1 seconds left and then a steal as Northwestern opted not to use its final timeout.
Matta: Ron Lewis was just a winner, man. He just was never afraid to make big plays and he wanted the ball. That play, we were going to Terence down low on that game-winner and he saw something, broke the play and hit a little 3-foot shot to seal the deal for us.
Lewis: This was one of my breakout games as far as somebody needed to step up and I really took it upon myself that this was my time. I just remember coach Matta coming to me like, ‘This is the time. This is where you belong.’
Butler: We got into that locker room and there really wasn’t much celebrating that went on. It was, we don’t want to share anything. We want to win that thing outright.
It set the stage for a storybook senior day, where the Buckeyes finished off Purdue, 76-56, to clinch their first outright Big Ten title since 1992.
Sullinger: The constant chatter about next year was fuel to our fire but it literally came to a halt that day simply because we could be champions. It was a lifelong dream of mine to put on the scarlet and gray and to have the opportunity on senior day to win the Big Ten outright, there literally was no better feeling.
Foster: (Expletive), for me it was just another game. The focus that we had as a team and that I had as a player, it’s like an out-of-body experience. I don’t know how to really explain it.
Dials: Being able to cut the nets down on our home floor in the last game of the season is probably the perfect ending that you can have other than cutting them down at the Final Four. Cutting them down at home in front of your fans, your family, was a surreal moment.
Sylvester: I don’t remember a ton of nerves. I think that is a testament to the way Thad coaches his teams. For it to culminate in holding an outright trophy, it was really special.
Matta: That was an emotional senior day for me. They shocked the world. That team, they brought Ohio State basketball back.