Six years ago, Illinois and Ohio State were sitting in opposite positions in the Big Ten standings.
The difference between where the Buckeye basketball program is now and where it was in 2005, however, isn’t simply measured in the wins or losses.
In a press conference Monday, coach Thad Matta said the OSU-Illinois game from March 6, 2005, helped lift the program.
“A lot of good things have happened since then and I think that game had a lot to do with it,” he said. “From when we started here to where this program is now, it’s amazing.”
In control of their destiny in the Big Ten, the Illini came into the Schottenstein Center 29-0 and as heavy favorites.
Matt Sylvester, then a junior forward, told The Lantern Friday he was not optimistic about the matchup.
“My personal mindset was a little gloomy,” he said. “They kicked our butts the first time we played them that year.”
The Illini won by 19 in Champaign, Ill., on Jan. 5, 2005.
Had they not faced a self-imposed postseason ban, stemming from recruiting violations, the 2004–05 Buckeyes might have been in the NCAA Tournament. They entered the game 18-11 and 7-8 in the Big Ten.
Sylvester said Matta, in his first year at OSU, reminded his players before the game about how they wouldn’t be postseason eligible.
“It was along the lines of, ‘We have no postseason play, so if you want to prove something to the country, this is the game to do it,'” Sylvester said. “We were obviously looking at that game as our National Championship, essentially.”
J.J. Sullinger, then a junior guard, told The Lantern he drew the assignment of guarding Illinois’ Deron Williams, now a two-time All-Star point guard for the Utah Jazz.
“I just tried to stay in front of him,” he said. “He had me on skates for however long we’ve played.”
Illinois’ entire starting lineup — Williams, center James Augustine, forward Roger Powell Jr. and guards Dee Brown and Luther Head — went on to play in the NBA. Head is the only other active NBA player, with the Sacramento Kings.
“They were unstoppable almost,” Sullinger said. “That team was amazing.”
The stars weren’t only on the court. Sylvester said the Schottenstein Center hosted high school recruits Daequan Cook, who played for the Buckeyes in the 2006–07 season, and current OSU senior center Dallas Lauderdale.
In a January press conference, fifth-year senior forward David Lighty said he was supposed to attend the game as well, but his high school team had practice.
“I was a little angry and upset about that,” he said. “Everyone knows about ‘the shot’ though.”
The game didn’t start promisingly for OSU. The Illini led by 11 at halftime.
“They were obviously not a good team to get behind on, they were just so good at controlling the tempo,” Sylvester said. “At halftime, in the locker room, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, how do you beat these guys?'”
As it turned out, Sylvester answered his own question. He scored 16 of his game-high 25 points in the second half. Yet, his career-best effort almost wasn’t enough.
The Buckeyes climbed back into the game and saw an opening, down, 64-62, after Head missed an open look from the top of the key with 17 seconds left.
Matta called a timeout with 12.1 seconds remaining, and called on Sylvester in the huddle. Perhaps it was because of Sylvester’s premonition earlier in the week.
“After one practice, I was sitting around talking with my buddy (then-senior guard) Brandon Fuss-Cheatham,” Sylvester said. “I said, literally, ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy to score 25 and hit a game-winner?’ That’s a true story.”
Armed with this confidence, Sylvester found himself with the ball in his hands and with an open look on the right wing, thanks to a screen from forward Terence Dials. Sylvester rose up and drilled a three, with 5.1 seconds left, to put his team up, 65-64.
OSU held Illinois on its final possession and a flood of students rushed the floor.
“I don’t know if that one win boosted the image of the program,” Sylvester said, “but those first two years Thad was there, we all helped to lay a few bricks and the foundation.”