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Headline: Foster Hopes Hard Work Helps His Shooting Range
(From Dec. 2005)
By Dave Biddle
One of the pleasant surprises for Ohio State last season was the play of junior college transfer Je'Kel Foster.
The 6-2 guard averaged 7.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He also proved to be a defensive stopper and led the team with 43 steals.
Foster came off the bench for the first 20 games of the season, but was inserted into the starting lineup for the final 12 contests.
This year, he could very well be in the starting lineup once again. But all he is concerned about is winning.
"If I start, that's great, but I don't get caught up in that," Foster said. "I just want to help this team any way I can, whether that's starting or coming off the bench."
Foster was a first-team All-American during his days in junior college. In 2002-03, at Howard Junior College in Big Spring, Texas, Foster averaged 15.3 points and 5.4 rebounds – both team highs.
In 2003-04, he followed his coach, Chris Jans, to Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla. Foster averaged 17 points, 5.5 assists and 5.1 rebounds and was named the Florida Junior College Player of the Year.
When it came time to choose a Division I college, Foster had several options.
"I considered a lot of schools," he said. "Oklahoma, Illinois State, LSU and a few others. I didn't get a chance to take all my visits because we were playing in the national junior college tournament. So, I only took two visits, here and Illinois State."
Jim O'Brien was still OSU's coach when Foster decided to commit to the Buckeyes. Although he didn't get to play for him, he still has fond memories of O'Brien.
"When I met with Coach O'Brien, everything he did was for the right reasons," Foster said. "He was a good guy, a positive guy. I didn't get a chance to play for him, but he seemed like a good guy. He kept in touch with my family all the time and is just a good sport."
Foster is originally from Natchez, Miss. He knew moving north to Columbus would be a bit of a culture shock, but he was excited for the opportunity.
"I was definitely looking forward to coming here," he said. "Until the winter came and the snow and stuff came. I wasn't used to the snow, so it took me a while to get used to the snow. But now, it's OK. I really like our campus and the city of Columbus. Living in Ohio has been good. I definitely made the right choice."
Foster wasn't sure what to expect as he began his first season at OSU in 2004-05. O'Brien was fired in the summer and replaced by Thad Matta. Not only was Foster getting adjusted to a new city and new teammates, he also had a new coach.
Then, a few games into the season, word came down that OSU would be banned from postseason play (a self-imposed ban for recruiting violations under O'Brien).
However, the Buckeyes responded with a 20-12 season, including a win over then-No.1 and undefeated Illinois. The Buckeyes probably would have been included in the NCAA Tournament if they were eligible. And one of the key players all year was Foster.
"Last year went pretty smooth," Foster said. "We started off with a pretty good record. As the Big Ten came in, it was pretty hard. It got kind of tough, but most of all, the team played together and just stuck together."
Foster was asked if the team was satisfied with the season, considering all the obstacles it had to overcome.
"The only time you're satisfied is when you don't lose, to me," he said. "So, unfortunately we lost some games, but yeah, I think overall we were satisfied with the season, winning 20 games and all. We felt we were good enough to go to the NCAA Tournament, but that was taken away from us. But I think we did a lot of good things last year and had a good season."
The Big Ten was a big step up in competition from junior college ball for Foster, but he made a smooth transition.
"I look at it like basketball is basketball, no matter who you are playing with," he said. "Of course, the Big Ten is a tough conference, but basketball is pretty much basketball. The speed of the game was definitely faster than junior college. Once I got the hang of the speed, everything began to slow down.
"But as far as the physical nature of the Big Ten, I always play physical. It's a physical game. I like getting out there and playing hard, diving on the floor, whatever it takes."
Another difference was getting accustomed to playing in hostile environments on the road.
"I didn't see too much of that (in JUCO ball)," Foster said. "It's different. It was a first experience for me last year. Playing Indiana and Michigan State and playing all the big schools, 20,000 fans don't like you, it's tough."
Foster was solid last season, but he says he can play much better.
"I think I have more to offer," he said. "I think I played pretty well last year at times, but I feel like I can do a lot more for this team. I just want to go and play my best ball this year and help us win games. All I'm worried about is getting this team ready to play this year."
There you go. There's that unselfishness and leadership that everyone likes about Foster.
Just how do his teammates feel about him? Listen to what senior center Terence Dials has to say:
"Je'Kel has brought a lot of leadership, toughness and tenacity," Dials said. "I mean, the fans saw when he came in off the bench last year and he gave us a boost. He was more or less our defensive stopper, along with Jamar Butler. But Je'Kel just does so many things for us. He's able to hit the three, he can play defense, he brings a winning attitude, a winning mentality, and I think that's what the team needed last year. We picked that up from him."
"Oh man, that's a huge honor," Foster said. "It's not something that I expected, but it's one of those things that just makes you happy and proud. We have four good senior leaders on this team and I'm happy to be one of them. I will not let Coach Matta down. For him to name us captains like that … that was just really good."
Foster and his teammates worked hard during the off-season and tried to spend as much time together as possible, on and off the court
"Me and all the other guys, we worked throughout the whole summer," Foster said. "So, I hope we got something good out of all the work we did. I'm pretty sure we did. We lifted pretty hard and just did a lot of team things outside of basketball. We just tried to stick together and just did everything as a team. We wanted to get stronger in areas we were weak in, or just communicating with each other. We lifted three or four times a week. We also shot as a team and on our own."
Yes, expectations are high as the Buckeyes enter the 2005-06 campaign. A 20-win season and NCAA Tournament appearance seem very much in the cards.
"Our goals are just to take one game at a time," Foster said. "Whatever happens, happens. Hopefully we can win games and get to the NCAA Tournament. It's every team's goal to make it to that tournament. Hopefully we'll get a chance to play in it this year."
And the Buckeyes have one of the best young coaches in America leading the quest. Matta is building his reputation as a tireless recruiter, but don't underestimate his skills as a bench coach.
And beyond that, the players seem to love playing for him.
"Coach Matta is great," Foster said. "I've never played for a coach like Coach Matta. Coach Matta is a coach who chews people out when he has to, but he always does it in a positive way. He's a real positive guy. He never talks behind your back. Whatever he has to say he says straightforward in front of the team."
Speaking on the team's photo day, Matta talked about what he appreciates with Foster.
"What Je'Kel has meant to this team has been invaluable from the standpoint of leadership and competitiveness," Matta said. "We wanted Je'Kel to become more athletic and explosive and I think he's done that."
Foster has been called the best all-around player on the team. He was asked to reveal his strengths and weaknesses on the court.
"I think I bring a good attitude to the team," he said. "I play hard. I try and lead by example, instead of just telling people what to do, I just try and show them how to do it and just lead by example.
"One thing about basketball, no matter how good you get, there's always some areas you can improve in. I don't think I have any big weaknesses, just getting better at everything that I do."
Foster enjoys having a big-time player like Dials on his side. The 6-9 senior center could be in the running for Big Ten Player of the Year and Foster says Dials makes everyone else on the team better.
"He makes the game so much easier because he draws so much attention," Foster said. "It opens the floor up when you're playing with Terence because all the guys that are guarding you, their coaches are telling them that they have to worry about Terence. So, it opens up the floor for the guards."
"They're going to bring heart," Foster said. "They play hard. It should take our level up a little higher. They are going to make our program sky high. Those guys, they bring good attitudes to the table. I'm looking for a lot out of those guys."
Pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch, you won't find many rebounders better than Foster. Most guards don't take pride in rebounding, but the opposite is true for Foster. He knows with OSU playing its "four out, one in" offense, the guards need to hit the glass hard.
"Yeah, we understand that if we rebound, the more we rebound the ball, the better we'll be on offense," he said. "If you get the rebound, you can go on offense. So, we've got to finish each defensive possession with a rebound.
"You have to have technique to rebound. You have to box your man out and go rebound. It's different things, but you just have to go get the ball.
"I like to do whatever it takes. If my team needs me to rebound, that's what I'll do. I just try and do whatever the team needs."
Unfortunately, Foster's family in Mississippi and New Orleans felt the horrible affects of Hurricane Katrina late in the summer.
"Yes we did," he said. "I was actually down there when the storm came. We didn't have electricity for about five days. There were strong winds. We didn't receive any water in the part that I'm from (about two hours from the Gulf). But my mother lived in New Orleans, so our house got flooded out. She still hasn't been back. I'm pretty sure she won't have anything left. It's been real frustrating for her. Hopefully I can get her to come out here so she can watch a lot more of our games."
Foster hopes to play professionally following his OSU career.
"Hopefully I'll be playing somewhere after this season," he said. "My major is sociology. But I just want to play somewhere next year. If pro ball doesn't work out, I don't know. I'll probably own a business or something, something minor."