As Ohio State basketball heads to Maui, most recent Buckeyes to make trip recall struggles

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The last time the Buckeyes went to Maui, the trip was sidetracked before even leaving the mainland.

It was 2003, and an Ohio State team with newly eligible Ohioans James “J.J.” Sullinger and Tony Stockman had a pitstop in California before heading to Hawaii. Coach Jim O’Brien had scheduled a rare road season opener, giving the Buckeyes a date with San Francisco three days before their Maui Invitational opener against San Diego State.

What was supposed to be a tune up instead turned into a glimpse of what was to come both in Maui and for the rest of the season. In what would be O’Brien’s final season with the program, Ohio State opened with a 76-65 loss to the Dons that sowed significant doubt into the minds of the Buckeyes.

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“We kind of got the wind knocked out of our sails before we even got to Maui,” Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, a junior on that team, said. “That was a game we were anticipating winning, getting some momentum going into Maui and we kind of got shook right off the bat. Right then and there we were on high alert.”

Things would get worse before they would briefly get better. As this year’s Ohio State team heads to Hawaii for the first time since that 2003-04 season, nearly two decades’ worth of time hasn’t helped some of those Buckeyes put the program’s last trip behind them. After losing to San Francisco, Ohio State took a 22-point loss to San Diego State in the first round before fending off Central Michigan and Villanova to return to Ohio with a 2-2 record.

It wasn’t the start to the season those Buckeyes had hoped for.

“We were there to win, and for whatever reason we just couldn’t turn it around,” Sullinger said. “I’ll be honest: typically I’m the glass-half-full guy, I’m always giving you quotes you can take and run with and be proud of. There’s nothing really to be proud of about that year, from my perspective.

“We were bad and we showed it and we played that way.”

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Jim O’Brien’s vocal cord issues create unusual preseason

When the Ohio State coach underwent offseason surgery for a herniated disc in his neck and emerged with a paralyzed vocal cord, the team’s preseason plans – as well as his overall well-being – were thrown into disarray. Terence Dials, then in his third season with the program, said practices were primarily run by assistant coach Rick Boyages while O’Brien recovered at home. O’Brien would watch film of practice, make notes and have those delivered to the team in his absence.

“Throughout October and before we left, he didn’t practice with us one time,” Dials said. “He wasn’t at practice.”

When he did return, O’Brien’s voice was significantly altered, and he was ejected from the San Francisco game where he infamously held up the grease board he used to communicate with his players with the message, “This is sad” and directed it toward the officials. The loss set a tone for the program’s first appearance in the Maui Invitational in 10 years.

Tied at 32 at halftime against San Diego State three days later, Ohio State surrendered 51 second-half points to the Aztecs to open with consecutive losses for the first time since the 1975-76 season, which would be the final one for legendary coach Fred Taylor.

Surrounded by what was described as paradise, the Buckeyes were an ocean away mentally.

“It was very strange because we didn’t feel like we deserved to be there,” Sullinger said. “Eventually, we got back on track, winning our last two games, but we were in turmoil and we were trying to find ourselves and trying to find yourself in paradise is not necessarily the easiest thing.

“We were being treated like kings and we were playing like peasants. It wasn’t a good combination at all.”

San Diego State would go on to finish 14-16 overall and lose in the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament.

“Our first two games we got shook and then our trip turned into survival mode and doing all the things you’d think about in Maui of hitting the beaches and doing all that stuff kind of became secondary and it wasn’t as fun as anticipated,” Fuss-Cheatham said.

It was gut-check time for the Buckeyes, who one day later had a date with Mid-American Conference foe Central Michigan and a chance at an 0-3 start staring them in the face. Things would get better, but only for a little while.

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Lineup changes spark consecutive wins to close Maui Invitational

In search of a spark, O’Brien benched Stockman and center Velimir Radinovic, inserted Ricardo Billings and Ivan Harris into the lineup for their first career starts and saw the Buckeyes fend off the Chippewas, 77-71.

It also brought two specific emotions out of the Buckeyes.

“I think pride and embarrassment,” Fuss-Cheatham said. “We didn’t want to start off 0-3 with a team we believed in. To me, it was the sign of what the year was to come, that we were trying to find our identify and figure out who we were. We just didn’t quite gel together the way we anticipated.”

Sullinger personally took some of the blame for that after buying into the preseason hype.

“Everyone was talking about us,” the Thomas Worthington product and Arkansas transfer said. “Tony Stockman and myself specifically thought it was going to be another Mike Redd-Scoonie Penn situation. We thought we had arrived, and we had not. I think it was a rude awakening that we had some work to do, and it just snowballed from there.

“We all felt like we could’ve been pretty good that year. The 40-year-old me now can look in the mirror now and say I had a lot to do with that, so I’ll take responsibility from my end but we just didn’t have it.”

After fighting off Central Michigan, Ohio State built a 15-point halftime lead in the fifth-place game against Villanova but had to hang on for a 67-66 win. Stockman led the way with 23 points, while Dials had 12 and Sullinger added 10. As the eight-team field dispersed, the trophy came back to Ohio but not with the Buckeyes – Dayton, after beating Central Michigan, San Diego State and then Hawaii in the title game, did the honors to kickstart a 24-9 season.

“We were fortunate to have some games that helped us out a little bit, but we were just not a very good team that year for one reason or another,” Dials said. “A lot of it had to do with not having a head coach for 30 days before we started playing games. That kind of hurts you.”

After winning its final two games, Ohio State returned home, hosted No. 13 Georgia Tech and took a 20-point loss. They would finish 14-16 that season and go 6-10 in the Big Ten for a ninth-place finish. O'Brien was fired at the end of the season.

Former Buckeyes give advice to this year’s team

At 3-0, the Buckeyes will ironically open their trip to Maui against the same team as the 2003-04 counterparts: San Diego State. At No. 17, the Aztecs are one of five ranked teams in this year’s field, joining No. 9 Arkansas, No. 10 Creighton, No. 14 Arizona and No. 23 Texas Tech. Ohio State is also receiving votes in the Associated Press poll while Cincinnati and Louisville round out the bracket.

Fuss-Cheatham had some advice for this year’s team.

“First, handle your business,” he said “When you win, it’s more enjoyable. When you do get the opportunity to take in Maui, make sure you do that 100% because you don’t get too many opportunities to see something that beautiful or be in a place that a lot of players after they leave college still talk about.”

Sullinger said the trip wasn’t without fond memories. His oldest son, Jalen, made the trip with him and was all of six months old. He’s now in his second season at Kent State.

“I got to spend some really quality time with my son,” Sullinger said. “He doesn’t remember it, but Jalen was out there with me. That was a great, great experience, getting a chance to experience that as a new father.”

Dials said he remembered attending a banquet put on for the entire field and playing PlayStation games against players from other teams, some of whom he had grown up playing against in AAU basketball. Fuss-Cheatham said the hotel and food were first-class.

Now the team’s director of professional development, Dials said he’s not worried about the current Buckeyes being held back by the issues that plagued the 2003-04 team.

“We have a bunch of young, hungry guys,” he said. “I don’t think we have a competitive issue or anything. I think we’re fine in that area. And this year we just have better players. Things should look up.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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