Building The Foundation: 2005-06 Buckeyes win Big Ten awards, fall short in title game bid
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 sixth installment in a series recalling that season.
After being picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten and as low as eighth by some voters, the senior-laden group closed the regular season with wins in nine of their last 10 games including a five-game winning streak that culminated with an outright Big Ten title won on senior day at Value City Arena. That took the Buckeyes into the Big Ten tournament and award season, but the effort of getting there would eventually take a toll.
First, though, came some recognition. Thad Matta was named Big Ten coach of the year and Terence Dials was named first-team all-league and player of the year.
Je’Kel Foster, senior guard: We were excited about the accolades, but I don’t think guys were really even focused on it.
Jamar Butler, sophomore guard: That’s the best all-around team I’ve played on in my life. Nobody had an ego. Nobody was selfish. If Terence was Big Ten player of the year, we all got Big Ten player of the year. Any individual award, it was a team thing.
Dials finished ninth in the conference in scoring (15.3 points per game), fourth in rebounding (8.0) and third in field-goal percentage (.581). He became the fourth player in school history to win the award, a list that includes two-time winner Jim Jackson.
Terence Dials, senior center: It was one of those things where I never felt as respected as I should have in the Big Ten. The AP, the media, the coaches, I used to feel more vindicated when they said, ‘OK, this kid is good.’ I was always just appreciative of my teammates.
Matta: He’d had a troubled career with injuries and that sort of thing. Terence was and still is just a great person. That was, in my opinion, him winning the MVP was the sign of a team MVP. Everybody got a piece of that, because they were so connected.
Dials: I really felt like it was a team award at that time because they gave it to the Big Ten champion and the player who averaged the most points on the Big Ten champion. I never felt like it was, ‘I’m the best player in the Big Ten.’
Ohio State took its 23-4 overall record to Indianapolis, where as the top seed it drew No. 8 seed Penn State in the quarterfinals. The Buckeyes trailed the Nittany Lions, who went 14-13 in the regular season and 6-10 in Big Ten play, by 12 points with 13 minutes to play before making eight of their final 14 threes for a 63-56 win. Junior guard Ron Lewis scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half.
James “J.J.” Sullinger, senior guard/forward: We’d been in those situations before. We knew what worked and what didn’t work, and we’d done them both. We set our egos aside for the betterment of the team and we got it done. Penn State was a really good team. They always gave us something.
Lewis: Penn State was a totally different team from the beginning because they were fighting for something as well. Everything starts over. This was the time that I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to make big plays.
With the win, Ohio State advanced to face No. 5 seed Indiana, whose fans brought an interesting subplot to the game. Coach Mike Davis had submitted his resignation effective at the end of the season, and some Hoosier fans wanted Matta, the former Butler coach, to replace him. At the game, a few unfurled a banner with the words “Winner takes Matta” bookended by two IU logos.
Matta: You know what? I do remember that, which I would’ve had no interest because (Greg) Oden and (Mike) Conley and the boys were coming in next year.
Butler: I always know Matta, he said Ohio State was his dream job. I didn’t think he was going anywhere. I remember him asking me, ‘If I go, you coming with me?’ The answer was yes.
Ohio State would win – and keep its coach – by a 52-51 score in a game that saw a bloodied Sullinger score 19 points and pull down 13 rebounds.
Sullinger: They called timeout, after timeout, it was on purpose, it wasn’t an accident. Earl Calloway just kind of elbowed me in the face. I remember exactly how it felt, I saw blood just gush and I remember what I said to him. I really can’t tell you what I said, but the gist of it was, ‘Do you think that’s gonna stop me? Do you think that’s gonna stop us?’ It didn’t, and I’m never going to forget that feeling.
Dials also had an assist to senior forward Matt Sylvester for the game-winning basket with 37.4 seconds left, a reversal from their normal roles.
Sylvester: I think after that game I might’ve said something to him, some wisecrack: ‘Hey man, it’s about time you finally give me one.’ He gave me a pass. The next possession, Indiana had it, they missed a really close, 6-foot open floater. That game ended in crazy fashion.
Dials: You know he’s going to come through in the clutch. He’s that type of player.
It set up a chance for the Big Ten sweep: a regular-season and conference title championship in the same season. Instead, Ohio State’s tired legs finally made themselves known, and No. 2 seed Iowa prevailed, 67-60.
Matta: I’ll never forget the Iowa game. Donnee Gray was the official’s name and he called a phantom foul on Terence Dials in the first half. The next day, the picture was in the paper and he did not touch the guy. We had to sit Terence, and J.J. was playing the 5-man for us.
Sylvester: It wasn’t pretty. We had to scramble to do it, but our toughness let us get to the championship game.
Dials: Thad’s short bench came into play in the tournament. We gutted it out the last game or so, but Iowa was just too fresh, had too many guys and we were dead. Jamar and Je’Kel, they gave all they could but felt like they couldn’t make a shot.
Lewis: You don’t know it until you just really run out of gas and you can’t withstand it anymore. You never go into a game thinking that but once you can see the other team has a lot more energy than you, more upbeat than you and the shots are not falling and the plays are not connecting like you want them to, you just have to chalk it up to our bodies really just ran out of gas.
The disappointment was tempered by the fact that, shortly after the game ended, the Buckeyes saw their names called on the NCAA Tournament show as a No. 2 seed. One year removed from a postseason ban, they would face No. 15 seed Davidson in a first-round game just down the road in Dayton.
Matta: I just remember being exhausted after those conference championship games. It was one of those feelings of, ‘My God, let’s just get back to Columbus and get some rest and get ready to go.’ By the same token, as a coach you were just like, ‘Wow, what a great feeling. We’re a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.’ It was unbelievable.
Foster: That’s one of every kid’s dreams, playing in March Madness. Just to be a part of the tournament was just awesome, man.
Sullinger: It was bittersweet. We came up short on one of our goals, which was obviously to win the Big Ten tournament.
Sylvester: We were in our own private room and I’ll never forget Thad and (wife) Barb and his two little girls, who were little at that time, were running around. It’s just a special time. You get to take a deep breath for a second and sit back and admire your handiwork and be proud of what you’ve done.
Butler: That was one of the best feelings in the world for me. I was coming from being in high school where I’d never even won a sectional championship or cut down a net.