Building The Foundation: 05-06 Buckeyes close magical season with NCAA Tournament loss
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 final installment in a series recalling that season.
Ohio State was afforded five days of rest before opening NCAA Tournament play against Davidson. After losing to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament title game, the Buckeyes were awarded a No. 2 seed and the chance to play just down the road at Dayton’s UD Arena.
It would mark the NCAA Tournament debuts for everyone except for fifth-year senior Terence Dials.
Jamar Butler, sophomore guard: What sticks out to me is how innocent we were going into that season and how resilient we were. We just kept grinding, kept working. Nobody in the world thought we had a chance to make March Madness, and to win the Big Ten in a conference that was loaded, be a No. 2 seed, it’s hard to even describe the feelings.
Terence Dials, senior center: It was exciting to be that high (of a seed), especially from our previous years not being that great of a team. Two, it was exciting because we were able to play in front of our fans.
James “J.J.” Sullinger, senior guard/forward: I have trouble sleeping any time I’m ever excited about anything, so I’m almost positive I didn’t get much sleep that week. I was like a kid in a candy store, man. I just could not get enough, especially when we got to Dayton.
Matt Sylvester, senior forward: It’s a weird feeling, going into the tournament, especially for the Big Ten, playing last and then you get sprung right into the tournament. I remember having some mixed emotions about it all coming to an end.
Ron Lewis, junior guard: The real moment for me was just stepping into the arena and really seeing, OK, we’re here. Even though we were in Dayton, smaller arena, it just felt different. The atmosphere was different. How you go about things was different.
Sylvester: My dad played at Dayton and is in their hall of fame so I had that side of it. I grew up a Dayton fan, so I was happy to be going to Dayton. (We played there) against Beavercreek (in high school) and they were undefeated at the time. We rallied from way behind in the second half and I tipped one in actually right after the buzzer that the referees counted and that sent us to the state finals.
Ohio State entered the postseason mired in a shooting slump. A month earlier, they were shooting 42.8% from three, the second-best mark in the nation, and averaging 9.5 makes per game. In their last nine games, though, the Buckeyes had made more than six only twice.
Dials: I do remember our practices going into that were real light. I remember coach Matta was real big on us getting our rest, having fresh legs because we went like seven deep.
Sullinger: I definitely remember us getting a lot of rest. We had massages a couple times and we were definitely trying to save our legs.
Lewis: The only thing that may have been different was our focus on attention to details, getting ready for an opponent we had never seen before.
Dials had, however. As a freshman, he was part of an Ohio State team that beat Davidson in the opening round only to lose to Missouri in the second round.
Dials: I still talk about that. I’ve only been to the tournament twice in my career, and both times I played Davidson in the first round. I don’t know what the odds are of that, but pretty crazy, right?
The Sullingers had to put some miles on the family vehicle. The Buckeyes would tip at noon in Dayton, but middle child Julian would play for Kent State at roughly 7 p.m. that night in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
Sullinger: I guess I never really put it in perspective. Now, being a father who’s getting ready to have a collegiate athlete, how amazing was that for my parents? I didn’t really appreciate it enough at the time.
The game against Davidson would prove to be chippy at times, and the Wildcats would scratch out a 35-32 lead at one point. Lewis would come off the bench and key a 17-7 run that flipped the game for the Buckeyes.
Dials: We didn’t shoot the ball well. Not to discredit Davidson at all, but I felt like for the last month or so our shots hadn’t been falling like normal.
Lewis: In the second half it was like, ‘OK, now we’re settled in, now it’s time to get going.’ There’s certain moments where you really feel like, ‘I belong here.’ That was one of those moments for me to where, coming from Bowling Green, I played in the Big Ten, but being on that stage and being able to help my team in that scenario. … I really belong here and I’m going to take advantage.
Sullinger: We weren’t playing our greatest, but we knew we had a run in us. Coach Matta, he just kept reiterating that this is the NCAA Tournament now, guys. We knew it was just a matter of time before we did what we needed to do to win.
Sylvester had a stare-down moment with fellow Cincinnati-area product Thomas Sander.
Sylvester: That was about the only player I remember from the team because he was a Cincinnati kid, but he was younger than me. I didn’t know him, but we had that GCL thing, being from Ohio. I remember we were kind of going at it a little bit, but neither of us had any major bearing on the game.
Dials: We didn’t come here just to win one game. We came here to get to the Sweet Sixteen. That was our focus. We got our tournament jitters kind of out the way.
The win secured a fateful matchup with a Georgetown team that had earned a No. 7 seed with a 21-9 record. Right away, it was apparent that the Hoyas would enjoy a size advantage against the Buckeyes what would prove to be decisive.
Sullinger: We just didn’t have the bodies for size. We didn’t go into the game scared or nervous or anything. We felt like that was our game to win. We knew we had our work cut out for us, but we went in there fully expecting to win.
Lewis: We knew we didn’t face that type of team before in the Big Ten. We tried to go out there with a game plan that we could execute. It didn’t happen, but everybody fought out there.
Sylvester: As bad as this sounds, I remember looking down at one point in warmups and thinking, ‘Holy s---. They were enormous.’ I just had this moment of the eye test where I went, ‘Woah.’
The Buckeyes would pull within 22-19, and then were within 54-48 with 5:11 left but Georgetown proved to be too much. Final score: Hoyas 70, Buckeyes 52.
Sullinger: We couldn’t do nothing with their size, flat-out. I think I blocked Roy Hibbert’s shot once and everyone thought that was an amazing play, but dude just kept coming.
Lewis: It’s really different when you put your all into a game and you still can’t just get over that hump. That’s really what it was.
Dials: I would tell guys we needed to play harder even though we were probably playing as hard as we could. It was just that they were more physically imposing and it made us look like we weren’t really playing hard. We needed more, but there was really nothing more that we could do.
Sylvester: They were really talented, they could handle the ball, they had NBA guys and if you run that Princeton (offense) really well with that type of group, it’s ridiculously hard to stop. I remember preparing for that, and our prep didn’t do much because they sliced us up with the back cuts.
Dials: It didn’t hit me personally until I got to the locker room and coach started talking to us about the last time we put on those jerseys. I remember one of my teammates crying like crazy. That’s when it hits you like, man, this is it.
Sullinger: I remember as we were walking out, I took my jersey off and then I realized before I could even put it back on I then realized, oh man, I’m never putting this on again and then I cried like a baby. If coach Matta did say something, I wasn’t paying any attention because I was literally throwing a temper tantrum.
Lewis: I was real emotional at that time and coach Matta came over to me and said some things in my ear. He was just like, ‘This is a stepping stone. We’ve got to be ready for next year.’ That gave me more motivation
Sullinger: I remember walking across the court and my brother, Jared, met me at half-court. That’s when I told him, ‘If these guys come after you, man, make sure you come here. They saved my life.’ I think that’s when he decided that he was going to come to Ohio State.
The end of the season hit home twice as hard for Dials and Sullinger, who had missed their graduation that morning.
Dials: We don’t have class to go to, we don’t have basketball to go to. What do we have? It was at that point where we were like, ‘Damn, what’s next?’ It hit us differently. There’s no off-campus checks coming in. You’re out there on your own. What do you do?
Sullinger: College just kind of came to an abrupt stop completely. We woke up that morning as college students and we went to bed that night as grown-ass men. We had no more classes to take, no more finals to take, we were done with school and we were done with our college career. It was literally, in the blink of an eye it was done.
With that, the season was over. They didn’t reach the Sweet Sixteen, but the Buckeyes had left a legacy and helped put the program in position for what would be an unprecedented run of success.
Dials: I want us to be remembered as a team that played really, really hard, gave it all we had. I do get a lot of joy out of being in public and people come up to me and tell me that my senior year’s team was their favorite. I never get tired of hearing that.
Sullinger: It literally was one of the best years of my life, and I can honestly say that with no hesitation. The fact that we were picked eighth. I’ll never forget that, and we won it outright and it was the first time since 1992 that had happened. I’ll never forget what it felt like to shut the haters up.
Sylvester: I hope that we made the Ohio State fans proud. I hope we represented the university in the right way and hopefully we laid one little brick in the foundation of Ohio State basketball.