Buckeyes Draw Toughness From Past

Plenty of Ohio State fans have been concerned with the minutes the team's key players have been logging this season, but former team captain Matt Sylvester is not one of them. Find out how both he and a few current Buckeyes feel this team stacks up with the 2005-06 squad from a toughness standpoint and how that might prove important in the next few games.

Toughness can only take a team so far – a fact Matt Sylvester is well aware of.

As a fifth-year senior and team captain, the Cincinnati native helped lead the 2005-06 Ohio State team to its first outright Big Ten title in 14 seasons. That year's team had been picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack in the preseason poll but used toughness and grit to overcome a lack of overall talent to capture the league crown.

This season, the Buckeyes boast four juniors in the starting lineup and were pegged to finish third in the conference. Heading into Sunday's road game with Illinois, they sat in a three-way tie for first place with six Big Ten games left to play.

Both teams turned it on in the second half of the season, but this year's team could take note of what happened to the Buckeyes of four seasons ago.

"We completely and totally ran out of steam," Sylvester told BuckeyeSports.com. "We had a strong February that was just a really tough schedule. We really did lose steam toward the end of the year."

Then-senior guard Je'Kel Foster in particular had a strong February. Starting with a home victory Feb. 4 against Minnesota, the guard connected on 18 of 22 three-point attempts during a three-game stretch that saw the Buckeyes knock off ranked foes Michigan and Illinois. At one point, Foster hit 12 straight treys.

Following the win against the Fighting Illini, the Buckeyes found themselves in sole position of second place within the Big Ten. Three weeks later, they clinched an outright conference championship. In all, they went 8-1 in their last nine conference games.

But the price OSU paid to get there took a heavy toll. Tired legs – the result of what essentially amounted to a seven-man rotation – conspired to hand the Buckeyes a second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament after capturing a No. 2 seed.

A similar worry exists this season. Four of Matta's five starters are pulling down an average of at least 32 minutes per game, and the coach's rotation is not guaranteed to stretch deeper than six players on any given night.

"I just said to Coach (Matta) the other day, ‘Man, you guys are peaking right now,' " Sylvester said. "They're just playing so well right now that it does worry you. ‘Man, can these guys sustain this until the end of the year?' "

Although he is concerned for this year's team, the former team captain said there is a difference between the two squads.

"The thing about them that we didn't have is that they are tough as nails but they're really athletic and really long and they're probably in better shape than the guys were my senior year," said Sylvester, who now works as an insurance agent in Columbus. "They're just a different level of athlete on the team this year. If anything, running out of steam for them is going to be more mental than physical."

In that case, there is little cause for concern in Columbus with a team that has won eight straight Big Ten games. Although he has struggled to define the word toughness, Matta said he is not concerned with where this team stands from a mental standpoint.

"I like their demeanor in regards to attention to details in practice," the coach said. "You don't have to bring up that we're in a three-way tie. Guys for the most part took the last couple games what we've asked them to do and they've done it."

Junior forward David Lighty, who is averaging 35.3 minutes per game, said he does not feel any more tired than normal at this point of the season.

"I'm good," he said. "After the games I'm sore but that's typical. Other than that, I'm always ready to go."

Matta has said that he limits what he asks his most-used players to do in practice. Last week, junior guard Evan Turner – who is averaging 33.1 minutes per contest – said the Buckeyes practice about half as much as the next college basketball team.

"We do things, we just might not do as many reps as we did (earlier in the year)," Lighty said. "We probably shoot more, getting shots that we get in the game and working on things like defensive principles but (there's) not as much contact as the beginning of the season.

"It's more mental things because by now everybody knows everybody in the league. It's just about going out and executing."

Lighty said Matta uses the term unflappable when trying to describe how his team should play – particularly on the road. Sylvester said the 2005-06 team had a camaraderie that carried it to key road victories against Michigan State and Northwestern down the stretch.

This year's team also boasts a closeness born largely out of familiarity. All but one member of last year's team returned for this year, and the team grew tighter still after a preseason exhibition trip to Canada.

"The situation we put them in, it was everybody love everybody or else," Matta said. "It was pretty confined to where we were staying and what we were doing. Guys' cell phones didn't work or if they did work it was expensive because of the coverage so there wasn't a whole lot of communication except with each other."

Now that closeness will be put to the test when the ball tips against the Fighting Illini. And Wednesday against Purdue. And the following Sunday at Michigan State.

Then Matta will truly know how tough this team is.

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