The last two seasons, Ohio State's final records were short of what the NCAA selection committee was looking for when it was filling out its field.
This year, the Buckeyes finished the year 20-12 overall and 8-8 in Big Ten play. Those numbers in most seasons would put Ohio State squarely on the bubble. According to collegerpi.com, OSU's final regular season RPI was 51st. UAB made the field as an at-large at No. 49, while Iowa State (62nd) and N.C. State (63rd) also got in.
But the Buckeyes were not eligible for postseason play beyond last weekend's Big Ten tournament due to a self-imposed postseason ban. That ban was put in place after former OSU head coach Jim O'Brien admitted he loaned money to a one-time recruit.
Ohio State's regular season was punctuated by a 65-64 upset of previously unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Illinois on March 6 at Value City Arena. If the Fighting Illini – given the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament – go on to win it all, Ohio State will be the answer to quite a trivia question.
The Buckeyes then went to Chicago this past weekend as the sixth seed in the Big Ten tournament. OSU had to rally from down 15 in the second half to hold off 11th-seeded Penn State in an opening round game. Then, third-seeded Wisconsin broke open a tight game late and advanced with a 60-49 win over the Buckeyes.
OSU had hoped to make a big splash at the conference tournament. The Buckeyes fell short of that. But they had little to apologize for after notching the school's first 20-win season since the 2001-02 team won a share of the Big Ten title as well as the conference tournament crown.
The Buckeyes accomplished a few things in coach Thad Matta's first year on the job. Matta, formerly of Xavier, was selected as the OSU coach in early July. But he and assistants John Groce, Alan Major and Dan Peters went to work quickly and put together a winner.
"I think that's a testament to Coach and his staff," said junior forward Matt Sylvester, whose three-point shot with 5.1 seconds left sank Illinois. "I can honestly say they are one of the best staffs in the country. I'm glad we got them in here. We had a couple of losing seasons and then we got them in here. We didn't even have an off-season with these guys. It was just bam bam. We just went with the flow and put things in on the go."
Junior center Terence Dials emerged as one of the best players in the Big Ten, averaging team highs of 15.9 points and 7.9 rebounds."You lose a game and you're going to be upset," Dials said after the loss to Wisconsin. "We have a long time to think about this one and we just want to make sure we work hard in the off-season."
Matta was asked following that season-ending defeat to sum up his first year in Columbus.
"I look forward to sitting down and recapping this season in my mind," he said. "Since the day we got here, we've been going 100 miles per hour. I look forward to sitting down and seeing what we accomplished. I told them this was the funnest team I have coached. That's a tribute to them. Out of 107 practices, we didn't have five bad ones.
"They have gotten a lot out of themselves and enjoyed the season. I go back to the beginning of the season and trying to pick them up and get them to believe in themselves, and I think they do now. I also look at the seniors. I asked them in September to help us lay the foundation for this program and I couldn't be happier in that regard."
Matta began his head coaching career by leading his only Butler team as well as his three Xavier squads to the NCAA Tournament.
When asked after his team bowed out of the Big Ten tournament whether OSU deserved an NCAA bid, Matta joked, "We would be in the tournament and we would win the NCAA championship. I can say that now because nobody would ever know."
A reporter then shot back, "But you'd be down by 11 at halftime of every game." (The Buckeyes trailed by 11 points at halftime of each of their final three games, the Illinois win as well as their two Big Ten tourney games.)
"Yeah, that's like the common theme, to be down 11," Matta agreed, smiling.
"But I do think we would have been in the NCAA Tournament," he added. "I think the win (over Illinois) solidified it. We didn't have a bad loss. There's not one game out of 32 games this year that you can say, `They got kicked tonight.' Even at Illinois (a 19-point loss), we were down seven and had the ball with 10 minutes to play.
"I know there aren't 64 more teams in the country better than us."
One area that hurt Ohio State down the stretch was shooting. Over the season's first 17 games, the Buckeyes averaged 29.4 field goals per game in building a 12-5 record. OSU averaged just 23.1 made shots in finishing the year 8-7.
Obviously, the quality of competition was stronger as the Buckeyes went through the Big Ten portion of their schedule. But OSU had all four of its sub-40 percent shooting games down the stretch, including a season-low 34.4 percent in the final loss to Wisconsin.
"I told you in late January I went back and looked at some of the shots we were getting early in the season and I felt pretty comfortable," Matta said. "I know coming in when we did on Sept. 22 that shooting was going to be a high priority for us and it was. I love teams that can flat out shoot the ball.
"In late August, I finally told people when they came into my office, `If you're here to tell me something bad, I don't want to hear it. I only want the good stuff.' I honestly didn't know what to expect. I think this team, as they came together, probably one of the biggest keys was not turning the basketball over. We finished with 120 more assists than turnovers. That was important."
Matta did what he could with the group he inherited. He intends to mold the players he will have back next year even further.
"There are obviously areas that I watch that we couldn't get corrected during the season," he said. "We need strength. They days of us getting outmuscled are over. We have to get stronger. We need to be more athletic. We have to get in better shape. We were climbing a mountain from day one. I think that cost us in what we had to try and do.
"Every place I have been, I have tried to have a great off-season. I know we need some time off. I need time off. I know I'll probably take a day off and be right back at it on Monday. But we have finals coming up and then spring break and 10 more weeks of school. We also need to do the things we need to do recruiting as well."
In some regards, OSU's final record could have looked much better. The Buckeyes dropped three games in overtime and lost a total of eight games by eight points or less, including three by three points or less.
"I go back to Creighton, Clemson and LSU," Matta said. "I'd like to have some of those things back again. For me personally, my expectation was to make this team better every day and they did that. The kids had a great passion and they cared. From my perspective, we played to the level I wanted us to, but you could say there is also a lot of room for improvement."
Besides the improvement from a 14-16 mark last year, just the competitive nature of the defeats was a big step up: A year ago, the Buckeyes had 13 losses by 10 points or more.
"They're a great group of kids," Matta said. "We structured a lot of practice to make it competitive. There may have been a time or two when I had to set a fire. They came to compete and they learned to compete. You take a program coming off a losing season, to quit is easier than to fight."
Ohio State will look toward next season with all five of the starters from the end of the year returning. That group includes Dials inside as well as freshman point guard Jamar Butler (3.6 points per game), junior shooting guard Je'Kel Foster (7.7 ppg, 42.8 three-point percentage), junior small forward J.J. Sullinger (9.7 ppg, 5.4 rebounds per game, 44.6 three-point percentage) and sophomore power forward Ivan Harris (7.3 ppg, 42.7 three-point percentage). Sylvester became one of the best sixth men in the Big Ten, averaging 8.0 points per game.
The Buckeyes lose three seniors in guards Tony Stockman (12.0 ppg) and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham (5.1 ppg, 3.1 assists per game) and center Matt Marinchick.
OSU will welcome three new faces next year in Utah high school center Brayden Bell, Oklahoma junior college guard Sylvester Mayes and Bowling Green transfer Ronald Lewis. Lewis, a guard, is a native of Columbus Brookhaven. He averaged 17 points per game at BGSU last year.
The staff has as many as two open scholarships for next year, meaning they could opt to add more help for next year – a big man, perhaps – in the late signing period.
"We are constantly recruiting," Matta said when asked if he might add to his roster for next year this spring.
But if the staff does not find another scholarship player this spring, they would have as many six scholarships to offer to current high school juniors.
It is clear that early in his tenure at Ohio State, Matta and his staff are at somewhat of a crossroads. They know they need to land some quality players beginning this spring and summer to set the program up for the next several years.
"I think (prospects) are getting a feel for who I am and who our staff is and what we want to try to get done and how we play," Matta said of the task ahead. "I think this is one of the best jobs in the country. We have to do our part now and get the job done."
One variable in all of this is the ongoing NCAA investigation into possible misdeeds that occurred on O'Brien's watch. A pair of civil lawsuits may have to run their course before OSU knows its final fate with the NCAA.
The school may be asked to return some NCAA Tournament money or face a scholarship reduction. But Matta believes any future sanctions will not include another postseason ban.
"I don't honestly know," he said. "I'm hoping it's soon that it's ended. With what has gone down – and I'm not Mr. NCAA – but I would be shocked if there were further penalties with regard to our current program. That's my initial thought. I couldn't see that would happen."
In the meantime, Matta will continue to bask in the glow of pulling off the biggest upset in Big Ten basketball in recent memory.
"The greatest moment I've had with this team was (after the Illinois game) watching our players embrace at halfcourt," Matta said. "That was the ultimate from where this team started and what it's been through. I have probably watched that 100 times on videotape."
Big Ten In 2005-06
Illinois is among five Big Ten teams that made the NCAA Tournament. The Illini will be joined in The Big Dance by Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Indiana will make its first NIT appearance since 1985.
Here is a team-by-team glance at how the Big Ten schools may look a year from now (all class designations this year):
* Illinois -- The Illini may well be decimated. They lose star guard Luther Head (16.1 ppg) and power forward Roger Powell (12.1 ppg) to graduation. It was also possible that junior guards Dee Brown (14.2 ppg) and Deron Williams (12.4 ppg) could head to the NBA a year early. Junior center James Augustine (10.0 ppg) figures to return. Coach Bruce Weber could have to turn to sophomore forward Warren Carter and sophomore guard Rich McBride to pick up a lot of the slack.
* Indiana -- Coach Mike Davis' status was somewhat shaky after IU missed the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. But the Hoosiers' growing pains could pay dividends next year, when all five starters could return. Junior guard Bracey Wright (18.5 ppg) faces a decision on whether to return or declare for the NBA. Davis started three freshmen much of the year, including forwards D.J. White (13.3 ppg; Big Ten freshman of the year) and Robert Vaden (10.4 ppg). Plus, Davis has national top-100 recruit Joey Shaw, a 6-6 guard, coming in next fall.
* Iowa -- Steve Alford solidified his hold on the Iowa job after his Hawkeyes won five of their last six games to slide into the NCAA. That was a fine finish after Pierre Pierce's suspension at midseason. Pierce (17.8 ppg) was a senior and Iowa will also lose forward Greg Brunner (14.5 ppg) and guard Jeff Horner (14.0 ppg). Sophomore guards Adam Haluska (14.5 ppg) and Mike Henderson will be back, as will junior center Erek Hanson.
* Michigan -- The Wolverines ended up 13-18, losing 13 of their last 14 games. Much of UM's troubles coincided with the loss of suspended junior guard Daniel Horton (12.4 ppg). Horton is due back as are the rest of the starters, most notably sophomore guard Dion Harris (14.2 ppg) and sophomore center Courtney Sims (9.3 ppg). Coach Tommy Amaker also has top-100 recruit Kendric Price, a 6-7 power forward, coming in.
* Michigan State -- The Spartans lose senior forward Alan Anderson (13.4 ppg), senior sixth man Kelvin Torbert (9.5 ppg) and senior guard Chris Hill (9.9 ppg). But three starters are due back – junior guard Maurice Ager (13.6 ppg), junior center Paul Davis (11.7 ppg) and sophomore guard Shannon Brown (10.3 ppg). Plus, coach Tom Izzo has national top-100 prospect Maurice Joseph, a 6-5 shooting guard, coming in the fall. MSU's string of eight straight NCAA appearances is the Big Ten's longest active string.
* Minnesota -- Coach Dan Monson saved his job after taking a collection of JUCO transfers and young players all the way to an unexpected NCAA bid. The Gophers will lose three senior starters, most notably center Jeff Hagen (11.5 ppg). But do-it-all junior guard Vincent Grier (17.9 ppg) figures to return as well as freshman forward Dan Coleman (8.6 ppg).
* Northwestern -- The Wildcats took a step back, falling to 15-16 this season. But Bill Carmody should have four starters back, most notably junior forward Vedran Vukusic (17.2 ppg) and junior guards T.J. Parker (9.8 ppg) and Mohamed Hachad (7.9 ppg).
* Penn State -- It was an agonizing second year at the helm for PSU coach Ed DeChellis, whose team finished 7-23. The good news is the Lions' top eight scorers return. The biggest hurdle is to get sophomore guard Marlon Smith (11.8 ppg) healthy again. He missed the last 17 games due to blood clots. Freshman forward Geary Claxton (12.4 ppg) was quite a find and junior forward Aaron Johnson (12.0 ppg) is a big space eater in the middle.
* Purdue -- The 25-year Gene Keady era came to and end with a wildly disappointing 7-21 season. Former PU player Matt Painter takes over as the new head coach. A late-season injury drove key junior forward Carl Landry (18.2 ppg) out of the lineup. He would be one of four returning starters. Junior guard David Teague (14.2 ppg) returns, while guard Brandon McKnight (11.6 ppg) is a departing senior.
* Wisconsin -- The Badgers reached the NCAA for the seventh straight year, including four straight under coach Bo Ryan. He will have to turn over his roster as UW loses four of its top six scorers, including forwards Mike Wilkinson (14.8 ppg) and Zach Morley and guards Sharif Chambliss and Clayton Hanson. But sophomore forward Alando Tucker (15.0 ppg) and freshman guard Kammron Taylor (8.5 ppg) return in the lineup and freshman center Brian Butch was a key reserve. Ryan also has a pair of national top-100 players coming in 6-7 small forward Joe Krabbenhoft and 6-7 power forward Marcus Landry.