It will be an emotional send-off for the seniors on Sunday when host Ohio State tries to lock up the outright Big Ten championship against Purdue (noon, ESPN Plus).
It will mark the final game at Value City Arena for OSU seniors Terence Dials, Je’Kel Foster, J.J. Sullinger, and Matt Sylvester.
The No. 9 Buckeyes (22-4, 11-4 Big Ten) have already clinched a share of the Big Ten crown. They escaped with a 56-53 win at Northwestern on Wednesday. The next order of business is to secure the school’s first outright championship since 1992.
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta says he will forever be indebted to his seniors and the rest of the players in the program.
“I would be hard to put into words what these guys have meant to me and my family and this program,” he said. “When you come into a new job, the number one thing that we tried to create here was a family. And these guys are, and forever will be, a part of my family. They are my kids. I have two daughters, but 11 sons. It’s one of those deals where you don’t have time to appreciate it during the season, but I think once the season ends and you can sit down and say, ‘Boy, what a run that was.’ I think a lot more will come into light at that point.”
Matta knows emotions will be running high on Sunday.
“It will be very difficult,” he said. “I always go back to the first meeting I had with them as a team, and then I met with them individually later that night. To see where they were then and where they are now, it will be an emotional day. But I think the great thing we have going is hopefully we still have a lot of basketball to play.”
Matta says Dials, Foster, Sullinger and Sylvester have grown up right in front of his eyes over the last two years.
“They have,” he said. “It’s been amazing to watch these guys and watch them mature as people and as players. It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of as a coach is just watching their progress. … This team, in my mind, is a team I will reference for the rest of my coaching career. What they’ve brought to the table and what they’ve meant to my life and me as a coach. The work they’ve done for us, not only on the court, but in recruiting. They’ve always been there for us. And last year, they continued to play hard even though there was no light at the end of the tunnel. My message was to help us lay the foundation for the future of this program and there’s no question they’ve done that.”
Ohio State had its way with Purdue (9-17, 3-12) in the first meeting this season. The Buckeyes emerged with an 80-64 OSU victory on Jan. 11 in West Lafayette.
The Boilermakers are led by 6-11 senior center Matt Kiefer who averages 12 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
Matta was asked what improvements he thinks Purdue has made since its first game against OSU.
“Well, I think they are more comfortable with their system and more comfortable with each other,” he said. “They play extremely hard. They’ve shot the ball better. You can just see the noticeable differences that their guys have made improvements. Their freshmen are no longer freshmen. Guys who have played different positions in their career are comfortable with where they are now.”
The Buckeyes obviously have no interest in sharing the Big Ten championship. Everything is set up for them to win it outright.
“I think that’s my thought because I want to win another game and finish off what we consider the second season,” Matta said. “I think 12-4 would be a tremendous feat being in the No. 1 conference in the country. But knowing that we’ve got another tough Big Ten game. There’s no looking at – as I’ve said – there’s no game on our schedule when I said, ‘We’re going to win if we just show up.’ We’ve got to come to play.”
Matta is hoping for a raucous crowd at “The Schott” on Sunday. In fact, the team is asking OSU fans to show their support by wearing scarlet-colored attire to the game.
“I think Ohio State has the greatest fans in college athletics and I’m proud to put these guys on the floor for our fans,” Matta said. “One of my biggest things for Sunday’s game is that I hope people have a true appreciation for what these seniors have done and for what this team has done. Coming in 22-4 and having a share of the Big Ten title, I hope that the Schottenstein Center will be rocking on Sunday at 12 o’clock.”
League championships are nothing new for Matta. He won the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now Horizon League) regular season and tournament championships in his lone season at Butler in 2001. He then won the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles during his first season at Xavier in 2002. In 2003, he won the regular season A-10 championship at Xavier, and in 2004, he won the A-10 tournament championship (and went on to advance to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament).
Matta was asked how winning a Big Ten championship compares to the other ones.
“I think this one … they all have special memories,” he said. “But this one I would say is probably the most unique. We came farther to get this one with expectations of where we may have been projected to finish. I think that winning a share of the No. 1 conference in the country … this one is probably ranking at the top for me.
“I think you could say mission accomplished that you’re going to be able to hang a banner that says Big Ten champs. What I want for (the seniors) most importantly is to send them off on a great note for their last game ever in the Schottenstein Center.”
Sylvester Trying To Get ‘Back’ To Full Strength
It’s been a rough season for the 6-7 Sylvester, who has struggled with his shot, as well as lower back problems. But he’s not down in the dumps about it. In fact, he is optimistic that he is going to finish out the season strong.
“I look at it like there’s still a lot of basketball to be played this year and I’m starting to feel better every day,” Sylvester said. “I think once I really start getting the practice reps back and get back into the game flow, I’ll be ready to be ripping and roaring by the time the tournament comes around.”
Sylvester explained the treatment he has been receiving for his back strain.
“Just a lot of therapy and I had an injection which is called an epidural steroid injection, which goes right into the spine,” he said. “Which wasn’t very much fun at the time, let me tell you that. I had it just (Thursday). I’m feeling a lot better already. It’s something that I had done before, about two years ago when I was having the same type of stuff and it helped me to really feel better. And like I said, I can already tell a big difference from (Thursday) to (Friday).
“It wasn’t that it was getting worse, it was that it wasn’t getting better. But I really believe this is going to help me out. All I have to do is get in there and get some practice reps and the game feel will come right back to me.”
Sylvester will be remembered by most OSU fans for his game-winning shots against Illinois last season, and LSU this season. But he was asked if he wants to be remembered for more than that.
“Well, I think those were a couple defining moments in my career, but especially the last few years, I think I’ve been a pretty steady player,” he said. “I’ve been really someone who doesn’t care about the spotlight at all. Just someone who wanted to do anything he could to help his team. Whether that be passing, or trying to defend, or doing whatever it takes. I think my legacy will be a good one when I’m out of here.”
Whatever you want to say about Sylvester, he is one of the best passers on the team. And he feels like he is an important cog in the offense.
“I really relish the role of almost a point forward role,” Sylvester said. “I like that the offense does kind of go through me and I’m expected to make the decisions and the passes. I really relish that role and I think my basketball IQ has gotten better every year.”
With the outright Big Ten championship staring them in the face, Sylvester says OSU needs to be careful not to overlook Purdue.
“They have a few really good big guys like Kiefer down low, and a few guards that can shoot it,” he said. “It’s kind of useless doing a lot of talking. I think it’s a game where if we come out and handle our business … the emotions are going to be high and the Schott is going to be rocking and we’re going to take care of it.”